With a month to go in the 108th Congress, and a massive legislative agenda to complete, lawmakers are focused less on highways and healthcare than on the agenda of an independent panel that could result in the most sweeping changes in how the nation manages intelligence in a half-century.
Before they break for the November campaign, lawmakers face a record high deficit, no approved budget for 2005, a dozen must-pass appropriations bills, and a huge highway bill, loaded with projects to sweeten reelection bids on Capitol Hill.
Still, the big momentum is behind the 41 other goals - namely, the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. This week, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation to fully implement the commission's recommendations, and a similar bill will be introduced in the House.
"The sweep of reform contained in this bill is historic, as it must be, because the challenges that confront us have little precedent in history," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, a cosponsor with Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona.
These proposals include both changes in how the executive branch directs the 15-agency intelligence community and a sharp reduction in the number of congressional panels empowered to oversee it. At stake: control of some $40 billion in annual intelligence spending and the future of some of the capital's toughest turf battles.
With numerous bills in the works, it's unclear whether Congress will pass a measure that hews so precisely to the 9/11 report. But the mere fact of the legislative momentum is a remarkable testament to the power of this commission. The panel, after all, is now formally defunct. Its mandate, extended once, ended soon after its final report was submitted on July 22. But instead of fading to black, as most other blue-ribbon panels quickly do, the commissioners loom larger on Capitol Hill than the leadership of either party on this issue.
Indeed, in a move not yet publicly announced, the 9/11 commission is reconstituting itself as a new foundation, the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, to be funded by public foundations.
At a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, senators repeatedly asked commission chair and vice-chair Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton whether they would endorse various alternatives to commission recommendations. "It's very flattering, given that we no longer exist," quipped Mr. Kean, a former New Jersey governor, after the panel.
In an unusual move, Congress held some two dozen committee hearings on the panel's recommendations during the August recess.
Senate leaders tasked the Governmental Affairs Committee to draft a bill on the executive branch reorganization by Oct. 1. Senate majority leader Bill Frist and Democratic leader Tom Daschle also assigned a 22-member panel the arguably tougher job of overhauling congressional oversight - now done by many committees.
On the House side, plans are proceeding on a slower track. GOP aides say it's likely that many committees will make proposals, which will take shape in the powerful House Rules Committee.
"There is enormous pressure to get something done this year. The commission has an aura of credibility on this issue that is very, very significant," says a senior Republican aide.
In a bid to get ahead of the debate on Capitol Hill, President Bush signed executive orders on the eve of Congress's return to boost the authority of the CIA director, including increased budget authority. Democrats said the move isn't enough.
While there is broad support on both sides of the aisle for a strong national intelligence director, there are powerful objections to how far his authority should extend into the Pentagon, which now controls about an estimated 85 percent of the classified US budget for intelligence. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warns that hasty reform could damage national security. It's a theme echoed on the Hill.
"If you take all the budget authority and hiring and firing authority, what's left [for the Secretary of Defense]... payroll clerk?" asked Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, while questioning 9/11 commissioners on Tuesday.
"We think the big risk is keeping it like it is," responded 9/11 commission vice-chair Hamilton, a Democrat and former Indiana representative to the US House.
Another sticking point is whether the new national intelligence director should be based in the White House, as the 9/11 commission has proposed, or outside to promote more independence from political influence. On Tuesday, Mr. Kean told Congress that the commission had reconsidered its recommendation, after hearing from Congress and the White House.
Democrats are also urging stronger safeguards against violations of civil liberties and the the possibility that intelligence will be shaped to support policy.
Senate intelligence chairman Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas proposes an even more radical overhaul of national intelligence by function: intelligence collection, analysis, science and technology, and military support. The plan, which would effectively break up the CIA, drew immediate fire from Democrats and former CIA director George Tenet.
At the end of Tuesday's panel, Chairman Roberts appealed to 9/11 commissioners for support. "Maybe the question is how much change the system can tolerate. We wanted our recommendations to be achievable and pragmatic," responded Hamilton. Should the 9/11 commission recommendations on oversight be adopted, intelligence committees would have a bigger oversight and budgetary role.