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On the Hill: Invalid License

On the Hill

Amid the celebration over passage of the intelligence reform bill this week, one dissonant voice could be heard through the self-congratulatory din. The new reform bill "practically invites terrorists to come into our country," said one speaker on the House floor Tuesday evening. It is "a recipe for a disaster--the same kind of disaster that occurred on 9/11. ... We ought to vote this down and start over."

That speaker was Jim Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin representative who chairs the House Judiciary Committee and who was the most determined opponent of the intelligence reform compromise that was finally reached on Capitol Hill this week. For weeks, Sensenbrenner had fought to derail any agreement, arguing that the bill to implement the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission and create a new national intelligence director must include a raft of controversial immigration provisions he has long promoted. Those provisions, equally unpopular with Democrats and Republicans who are wary of alienating Latinos, would have brought down the entire bill. But the famously bullheaded Sensenbrenner refused to budge. Personal appeals from President Bush and Vice President Cheney couldn't sway him. Nor did the eventual capitulation of other Republican holdouts--Duncan Hunter in the House and John Warner in the Senate-- who had complained that the bill might threaten military intelligence-gathering. After a triumphal compromise agreement was finally reached Monday night--one that excluded his pet immigration measures--the hard-nosed Judiciary chairman was disgusted. "The current bill is woefully incomplete and one I cannot support," he fumed in a statement. One GOP staffer reports hearing Sensenbrenner defiantly bellowing down a Capitol hallway, "I did not sign that conference report!"

Sensenbrenner may not be well-known outside of Capitol Hill, but, inside Congress, few people were surprised to see him fighting his immigration battle like the last defender of Iwo Jima. Sensenbrenner has a rich history of exasperating GOP leaders and even the Bush White House. And, given his obvious displeasure over the intelligence reform bill's outcome, he's likely to extend that record in entertaining form when Congress reconvenes next year, at which time his Judiciary Committee will take up high-priority GOP issues like tort reform, abortion, the Patriot Act, and, of course, Sensenbrenner's still-unrealized immigration reforms. "His pride will be on the line," explains one Democratic Judiciary staffer. Hell hath no fury like a chairman scorned.

BY ANY STANDARD, Jim Sensenbrenner has it pretty good. His great-grandfather founded the Kimberly-Clark Corporation, makers of paper products that include Kleenex and Kotex. If that means the occasional snickering tampon joke, so be it: Sensenbrenner is worth more than $10 million. Even so, Sensenbrenner is a lottery player who, in 1997, bought a $2 ticket in Washington, D.C. and hit a $250,000 jackpot. But even that wasn't enough. He was spotted buying another ticket a few months later.

Somehow all this good fortune hasn't translated into a sunny disposition. In a building of backslappers and glad-handers, the 61-year-old Sensenbrenner--a 26-year House veteran from a highly Republican district near Milwaukee--is something of a scold, a prim hall monitor among unruly children. He is not part of the clubby leadership gang that revolves around Majority Leader Tom DeLay. But he's not friendly with many Democrats, either. "He's not the warmest guy. Jim has a distrustful nature," says a senior GOP aide. "He's curmudgeonly," adds a Democratic Judiciary Committee member. "He's not a pleasant guy. There's not a moment where you feel like he's someone you want to hang out with."

One manifestation of this is Sensenbrenner's obsession with order and procedure. Since taking over the committee from its former chairman, Henry Hyde, in 2001, Sensenbrenner has insisted on punctuality, and calls on committee members based on their arrival time rather than seniority. He once canceled an appearance before his committee by Attorney General John Ashcroft because Ashcroft failed to submit his written testimony at least two days in advance.

Unpleasantness in a committee chairman is no shocking thing. But, unlike other imperious congressional barons--the hyper-partisan Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Thomas, for instance--Sensenbrenner exasperates members of both parties. Although the Judiciary Committee tends to be a home for crusading extremists--"the crazies of the left and the crazies of the right," as one Democratic member puts it--Sensenbrenner has been relatively moderate, willing to stand up to the GOP's right-wing base. For instance, he infuriated pro-gun conservatives in 2002 when he blocked a bill that would have allowed current and former police officers to carry concealed weapons even in jurisdictions with laws against doing so. Saying the bill infringed on states' rights, Sensenbrenner refused to hold hearings. Only after a whopping 275 co- sponsors had signed on did House Republican leaders finally force the chairman to act. (Still, Sensenbrenner pointedly declined to invite the bill's sponsor, Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham, to testify at the hearing.)

Shortly after September 11, even many Democrats were chary of standing up to the Bush administration. Not Sensenbrenner. When his committee was charged with writing the first incarnation of the Patriot Act, Sensenbrenner started by complaining that Ashcroft's proposed measures were draconian and "sacrificed civil liberties." Sensenbrenner then worked with Judiciary Democrats to add a two-year sunset provision to the bill's expanded police-wiretap and surveillance powers. The resulting bill passed the committee unanimously, an amazing feat for a bunch of ideological "crazies." Sensenbrenner's role led to a strange outcome in which the Democratic Senate's bill was far closer to Ashcroft's request (a "rubber stamp," Sensenbrenner grumbled) than the House version. Though the measure was toughened up some during a House-Senate conference, the sunset remained, albeit as a four-year rather than a two-year clause. And Sensenbrenner stayed on the case: In 2002, he submitted 50 written questions about the bill to the Justice Department and warned he would "start blowing a fuse," even threatening to subpoena Ashcroft, if he didn't get answers.

Sensenbrenner can be almost comically stubborn. The more you push him, the firmer he stands. When Congress was debating the so-called Amber Alert bill to help track down abducted children in 2003, the father of famed kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart repeatedly attacked Sensenbrenner publicly for "hurting children" by bogging down the bill with added provisions its sponsors hadn't sought. (Sound familiar?) Most politicians would sprint from a showdown with the father of an abducted teen. But Sensenbrenner didn't back down, and he got his way in the end. Even the normally mild-mannered ber-pundit Norm Ornstein has been driven to intense frustration by the immovable Sensenbrenner. Ever since September 11, Ornstein has crusaded for plans to ensure that Congress can function after a major terrorist attack, to avoid the possibility of a House run by a tiny band of survivors. Ornstein has drummed up wide support for a sensible idea: a constitutional amendment allowing for quick replacements of dead or crippled House members through temporary appointments. But Sensenbrenner, whose committee must approve such an amendment, has almost singlehandedly blocked any substantive action, leading Ornstein to call him "an obdurate and inflexible jerk." Adds Ornstein: "When he digs in his heels, he will not move."

THAT WAS CERTAINLY the case with the intelligence reform bill. When the House version passed through his committee this fall, Sensenbrenner insisted that it include a series of immigration provisions that the 9/11 Commission had not recommended. Many had little to do with terrorism--one would have made it easier to deport immigrants to countries where they might be detained or tortured, and another would have made it easier to detain people indefinitely. "His big issue seemed to be an anti-immigrant agenda," says one Democratic aide familiar with the negotiations. "It had little to do with terror." Another provision, which would have immediately deported any immigrant who could not produce documentation of five years' residence in the United States, amounted to "a dragnet that just sweeps people up and expels them" by the thousands, says the aide. "It was very harsh stuff." Although the full House passed Sensenbrenner's provisions, many had no hope in the Senate. But Sensenbrenner refused to compromise, even after Senate negotiators agreed to his less controversial requests, such as 8,000 new detention beds for immigration violators and 2,000 new border guards. Above all, he was fixated on preventing states from issuing drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants and ensuring that licenses expire at the same time as a license holder's immigrant visa.

What evolved was a standoff that had more to do with immigration politics than intelligence reform. Tom Tancredo, a hard-line anti-immigration Republican from Colorado, says Sensenbrenner was picking a fight that has been simmering in Congress for months now. "What we see happening is a metamorphosis. The majority of the conference is moving from being rather shy about getting involved with this [immigration] issue to now becoming very vocal," Tancredo says. The GOP position had been that "you cannot talk about immigration, you can't even talk about anything that looks like reform, because we will lose votes among Hispanics, and even the president is opposed." But, since the election, he says, "There are plenty of members now willing to take on the president and the leadership." Sensenbrenner, he explains, wasn't just speaking for himself--he was speaking for that group (even if, Tancredo can't help grousing, "he's a little reluctant to share the spotlight"). That might be one reason why House leaders like Speaker Dennis Hastert at first appeared awfully reluctant to lock horns with Sensenbrenner over the issue.

Now, Sensenbrenner may be the face of immigration reform on the Hill. Speaking on the House floor before the intelligence reform vote this week, he vowed to rejoin the fight again next year: "I can assure you that this issue is not going to go away." Hastert has said immigration reform will now be a top priority next year. And, if Sensenbrenner doesn't get his way, he might take out his anger by blocking other Bush administration priorities. For instance, the Judiciary Committee will hold hearings next year on renewing the Patriot Act, which expires at the end of 2005. Sensenbrenner has already vowed to place "the burden of proof" on the administration to defend each of the act's provisions--including the wiretap and surveillance powers he was skeptical of back in 2001.

Given recent signs of friction between the White House and Congress on a series of issues--not just the intelligence bill, but also impending tax and Social Security reform--there's no telling which other powerful chairmen might start asserting themselves next year. "Something's going on with Republicans right now, where they're sniffing around each other, trying to figure out where the balance of power is going to lie in a lame-duck presidency," says the Democratic Judiciary Committee member. Jim Sensenbrenner may be only the first of many thorns in the White House's side.