WASHINGTON - Rebellious House Republican leaders blocked and appeared to kill a bill Saturday that would have enacted the major recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission in a defeat for President Bush.
Republican leaders refused to allow a vote on the legislation despite last-minute pleas from Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for a compromise before Congress adjourned for the year.
It also marked a major setback to the Sept. 11 commission — whose July report triggered a drive toward overhauling the nation’s intelligence operations — and to many relatives of victims of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The decision to block a vote, which would have created the job of a Cabinet-level national intelligence director to oversee the CIA and the government’s other 14 spy agencies, came after what lawmakers from both parties described as a near rebellion by a core of highly conservative House Republicans aligned with the Pentagon who were emboldened to stand up to their leadership and to the White House. The bill would have forced the Pentagon, which controls an estimated 80 percent of the government’s $40 billion annual intelligence budget, to cede much of its authority on intelligence issues to the new national intelligence director.
‘‘What you are seeing is the forces in favor of the status quo protecting their turf, whether it is Congress or in the bureaucracy,’’ said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the chief Senate author of the failed compromise bill, in what amounted to a slap at her Republican counterparts in the House.
Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, Republican and chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, said he was ‘‘obviously disappointed’’ that the House was not given a chance to vote. ‘‘There’s no question it would have passed easily,’’ he said, because most Democrats and a good number of Republicans would have supported it.
‘‘I think there’s no question that there are people in the Pentagon who want the status quo, and they fought very hard with their allies in Congress for the status quo,’’ Kean said.
The decision to block a vote was announced by House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, who said that his members had determined that the bill hammered out by a House-Senate conference committee earlier in the day might dangerously dilute the authority of the military commanders over intelligence issues and could ‘‘endanger our troops in the field.’’
‘‘It’s hard to reform; it’s hard to make change,’’ Hastert said, only hours after House and Senate negotiators ended a monthlong stalemate and announced their agreement. ‘‘We are going to keep working on this.’’
While Hastert said that the negotiations would continue and that a result he would not formally adjourn the House for the year, many lawmakers said that the action had effectively killed the legislation. Saturday was supposed to be the last day of business for the House and Senate in their so-called lame duck postelection session, with many lawmakers not expected to return to Washington until January. Hastert said Congress may reconvene Dec. 6 to try again.
The decision to block a vote was seen by the bill’s proponents and others in Congress as a surprising embarrassment to the president, who had personally intervened as late as Friday night to press rebellious House Republicans to agree on an intelligence bill, and to Hastert, who had signaled that he wanted the legislation and was willing to overrule the opposition from within his ranks.
Congressional officials said Bush had telephoned a leading Republican critic of the bill, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, from Air Force One on Friday en route to a economic summit meeting in Chile to urge him to compromise.
They said a similar call was made Saturday morning by Cheney to the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who has long warned that creating a national intelligence director post could interfere with the military chain of command as U.S. troops continue to do battle in Iraq.
But the calls were to no avail, since House and Senate negotiators agreed that the continuing opposition of Sensenbrenner, Hunter and a handful of other influential Republicans had tipped the balance for Hastert in deciding to block a vote.
Less than three weeks after Democrats suffered a stinging defeat at the polls, the bill’s failure could provide Democratic leaders with a political opening to argue — along with members of the Sept. 11 commission and the families of victims of the terrorist attack — that House Republicans killed a bill that had widespread bipartisan support and that would have allowed the government to better protect the public against terrorist threats.
‘‘Today, the House Republicans missed an opportunity to make the American people safer,’’ said Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader. ‘‘Their inability to overhaul our intelligence system is a staggering failure.’’
Rep. Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and one of the authors of the compromise bill, said, ‘‘This is a tragedy for America.’’ She added: ‘‘If there is another major terrorist attack on our soil — and sadly, there will likely be one — we will have only ourselves to blame. Congress had a chance to protect America, and Congress failed.’’
The decision appeared also to reflect a sharp split between Republicans in the House and Senate; Senate Republicans voted unanimously last month to support a version of the intelligenceoverhaul bill that had been endorsed by both the Sept. 11 commission and the White House and that would have granted sweeping budget and personnel authority to a national intelligence director. In its final report in July, the commission cataloged the blunders and turf battles of the nation’s spy agencies in the months and years before the Sept. 11 attacks and called for the appointment of a powerful intelligence director to force them to cooperate.
At a news conference Saturday to explain the tumultuous events of the day, Hastert singled out Hunter as instrumental in the decision to prevent a final vote on the bill. Hunter, a member of the House-Senate conference committee that shaped the compromise bill, had opposed the final product when it was made public on Saturday morning, warning colleagues that it could interfere with the transfer of vital intelligence to soldiers on the battlefield.
Hunter’s views reflected those of senior Pentagon officials, who have quietly lobbied for months to block the creation of the job of a powerful national intelligence director, the central recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission.
In an interview, Hunter predicted that Congress would eventually approve an intelligence-overhaul bill, but one that would not permit a national intelligence director to interfere with the transfer of intelligence within the military and ‘‘leave a state of confusion, which is deadly on the battlefield.’’
‘‘I’m very proud today of House Republicans and the House Republican leadership,’’ he said. ‘‘They care. If they didn’t care, Denny Hastert could have hammered this thing across the goal line.’’