President Barack Obama's nominee to be chief of U.S. intelligence, James R. Clapper, was unanimously approved Thursday by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Clapper's nomination now goes to the full Senate, where his confirmation may face delays from some GOP lawmakers unhappy with House Democrats' handling of an intelligence authorization bill.
The director of national intelligence oversees the nation's 16 spy agencies.
Obama nominated Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who has served as the Pentagon's chief intelligence official, to succeed retired Adm. Dennis Blair. The nation's third intelligence chief, Blair stepped down under pressure after clashing with other intelligence officials.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the committee's chairwoman, said she "initially had reservations" about Clapper, but that her doubts were "overcome by his experience and leadership ability."
Feinstein had questioned whether a nominee who had spent so much time at the Pentagon — as a general and then heading the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial Agency — could represent mostly civilian intelligence services.
Clapper also won over his other top critic, Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, the panel's senior Republican, in a closed-door session Wednesday. Bond said Clapper "assured me that he does not intend to be a hood ornament" and that he will "fight hard to turn the DNI into the position it needs to be."
"He's gonna be our nation's top spy or he's not going to stick around," Bond added.
Bond was referring to the fact the director of national intelligence — created by Congress in 2004 — has limited funding and executive powers, which has hamstrung the previous directors' authority.
Clapper has pledged to work with Congress to clarify and even expand that the director's authority, although he insists the process will not require new legislation, but rather careful interpretation of the existing law. Clapper also said he will have a cordial relationship with CIA Director Leon Panetta, who had sparred with Blair in turf wars.
The retired general's confirmation may still face opposition from GOP lawmakers who blame the White House for the continuing delay in passing last year's intelligence act. The bill passed the Senate but has languished in the House, specifically in the office of the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Pelosi has been negotiating with the White House to require that intelligence briefings on covert action include the congressional intelligence committees and not just senior congressional leaders. The House version of the measure also would give the Government Accountability Office oversight of the nation's intelligence agencies.
The Senators want to use the Clapper nomination to apply pressure in triangular fashion: they'll put a hold on his nomination, which the White House wants to go through before the Senate finishes its summer session to try to force the White House and Pelosi to resolve their differences over the intelligence bill.
While the White House has written a letter supporting the House intelligence bill, administration officials say it's not crucial that this version be passed. They pointed out that the intelligence appropriations bills that give the agencies money already have gone through.
But Lee Hamilton, former chair of the 9/11 commission and a member of the Presidential Advisory Board on Intelligence had full sympathy with Congress's hang-up with the intelligence legislation. He pointed out that there has been no such acts passed into law in almost six years.
"If you can't get a bill passed, the intelligence community goes around you to the appropriations committees," and simply ignores congressional oversight. "If you're on intelligence committees, your relevance is at stake."
(This version CORRECTS the reference to Bond quote to show that Bond said Clapper has assured him he will 'fight hard'.)
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