President Bush is beginning a last-ditch effort to get intelligence restructuring legislation passed by Congress next week, bolstered by the nation's top military officer, who said yesterday that congressional negotiators had addressed his concerns about the bill and that he is dropping his opposition to it.
Bush is expected to send to congressional leaders today a letter that will emphasize his support for the compromise legislation pending before Congress and ask that the House pass it on Monday, according to congressional and administration sources. In that letter, the sources said, he will deal with the two issues House Republican leaders have cited as obstacles to approval -- protection for war fighters and control of illegal immigration.
These sources said the letter is expected to say that the compromise legislation -- which would establish a director of national intelligence with budget authority over the 15 agencies of the U.S. intelligence community, including three in the Pentagon -- would preserve the current powers of the defense secretary.
An Oct. 21 letter written by Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has until now been used by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) to strengthen opposition to the measure on the ground that it could harm the country's war fighters.
In his letter, Myers had said that only the House version of the bill would adequately preserve the defense secretary's control over funds for intelligence agencies that provide critical support to combat operations.
"The issue that I commented on, I understand, has been worked satisfactorily in the conference report," Myers said at a breakfast with reporters yesterday. "That part has been accommodated," he said, adding: "I haven't seen the specific language."
Myers said he did not want to discuss the issue in depth: "This is being worked between the White House and the House and Senate and the conferees, and it's inappropriate for me to comment on that process."
Bush will reportedly also attempt in his letter to deal with the opposition of House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who has pressed for the inclusion in the measure of a number of immigration and law enforcement provisions, some of which were opposed by Senate members and were dropped from the compromise bill.
Bush's letter, the administration and congressional sources said, will express support for several of Sensenbrenner's proposals but will say he is pleased that the more controversial issues were dropped for consideration next year.
The president's letter is not expected to mention the most controversial Sensenbrenner proposal, one that would require special driver's licenses for noncitizens so that they could be readily identified. Under Sensenbrenner's plan, any noncitizen's driver's license would be temporary, expiring at the same time as his or her visa or other temporary document authorizing presence in the United States.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said yesterday that the president had spoken to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to map out strategy for getting the measure passed next week. Hastert pulled the bill from a House vote before the Thanksgiving recess when opposition led by Hunter and Sensenbrenner made it clear that a majority of House Republicans might vote against the measure if it is brought to the floor.
"Intelligence reform is a high priority for the president," McClellan said, "and he wants Congress to get this done as soon as possible."
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and a prime author of the intelligence measure, said on Fox News: "I'm optimistic that the bill will be voted on next week. I am convinced that if it's brought before the full House and the full Senate for a vote . . . it will pass with a strong vote."
After receiving a call yesterday from White House chief political adviser Karl Rove, Collins noted that "the White House is working very hard to convince the speaker that he should bring the bill up, and I'm optimistic that he'll decide to do so."
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said yesterday that the bill "is not perfect, but it is a big improvement on what we have." During an appearance on Fox News, Shelby said both Hunter and Sensenbrenner have legitimate complaints, so the question is whether the White House will "be able to satisfy their concerns between now and next week."
Myers also emphatically defended his handling of the Iraq war during his breakfast with reporters yesterday.
Asked if he has any regrets about the statements he made before the war that he was confident that weapons of mass destruction would be found, he said, "It's not over yet," indicating he thinks it is possible that stockpiles still might be found.
He declined to say whether he had expected, 20 months into the war, to suffer 10,000 U.S. casualties and to send more troops to Iraq. "If you look back, nobody predicted exactly where we'd be, and nobody can," he said. "I'm really proud of what we've done. I'm proud of the way we're doing it."
He said it is possible that the military presence in Iraq could be boosted even above the increase of about 12,000 -- to 150,000 -- announced earlier this week. "It's a continuing process," he said. "If additional troops are needed, they'll be provided."