WASHINGTON - After heavy lobbying by the White House, members of Congress trying to save the massive intelligence reform bill announced an 11th-hour compromise to preserve the military chain of command, a deal that they hope will permit the bill to pass this week.
But nothing will be known for certain until after House Republicans meet today to discuss the compromise and whether to schedule a vote. If the House votes to pass it, the Senate will act later this week.
At a late-afternoon press conference yesterday, the two Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California and Sen. John Warner of Virginia, said they no longer intended to block the bill, which President Bush wants passed. Mr. Hunter, whose opposition, many thought, had all but killed the bill, said he now "strongly" supports the bill.
At the White House Mr. Bush told reporters, "I call upon the Congress to pass the intelligence bill. It is a good piece of legislation. It is a necessary piece of legislation. It's a piece of legislation that is important for the security of our country."
The adoption of four words reportedly made the compromise possible, ending a stalemate that has gone on for weeks. The bipartisan members of the 9/11commission who have lobbied unanimously for the bill intensified their support recently, warning time is running out to pass it.
If it does not pass this week, the next Congress, which convenes in January, has to start all over.
The Pentagon wants to make certain that the creation of a new post of national intelligence director will not mean that civilian need for intelligence, primarily from spy satellites, will keep battlefield commanders from having access to the satellites whenever they need it.
The four words are "respect and not abrogate," meaning that the bill, if it becomes law, will respect and not change the chain of command. In practical terms, it means that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld still will call the shots on use of satellites.
Although supporters of the bill said they thought the issue of the Pentagon's control over spy satellites was not an issue because it has never been a serious problem in war, military leaders said they feared it could become an issue if a civilian intelligence director suddenly overruled the Pentagon's need for "real-time" battlefield intelligence about "where the bad guys were located."
The White House said it hopes that the compromise, feverishly worked out over several days with Mr. Hunter, Mr. Warner, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Sens. Susan Collins (R., Maine) and Joe Lieberman (D., Conn.), will lead to passage of the entire bill this week. The Senate passed an earlier version by a vote of 96 to 2 before the November elections.
But there is another last-minute hurdle to be removed. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.) wants national standards for driver's licenses, arguing that illegal aliens should have no right to them. He has stressed the 19 hijackers on 9/11 had 63 valid driver's licenses among them. He also wants other immigration rules tightened. Yesterday he said he still is opposed to the bill as written, saying the time to address border security and immigration reform is now, not later. Some supporters of the bill say immigration can be dealt with in the next Congress.
The failure of the bill to include Mr. Sensenbrenner's measures, which the 9/11 commission did not address, has caused a rift among the families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Debra Burlingame, whose brother was a pilot killed in the attacks, argues that although the hijackers were in the country legally, they overstayed their visas but were able to move about, fly, and get money because they had multiple driver's licenses.
But Mary Fetchet, founding executive director of Voices of September 11, who lost her son in the attacks, pleaded for passage of the current bill, saying immigration rules may be changed later, but that the bill will die if it isn't enacted this month.
In a letter to members of Congress sent last night, President Bush praised the compromise agreement and insisted the intelligence reform bill will strengthen the country against terrorism. He wrote, "It is imperative that Congress act this week to guarantee these vital tools become part of our arsenal immediately."
He also said he thinks the bill strengthens immigration laws by increasing the number of border patrol agents and detention beds. He said there are other measures he would like to see passed eventually that would improve asylum laws and standards for driver's licenses.
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