White House and congressional leaders yesterday broke a logjam that has stymied major legislation to restructure the nation's intelligence community, prompting lawmakers to schedule a House vote today on the long-debated measure.
Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who 17 days ago sidetracked the bill because of strong opposition from his own party, hopes to send it to the House floor soon after a private, Republicans-only meeting at 10 a.m. in which he will urge his colleagues to climb aboard, his aides said last night. As a sign of the speaker's optimism, the Rules Committee began setting guidelines governing the expected floor debate.
House approval is seen as the final roadblock for the legislation. It was jump-started in July by the report of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which criticized the government's intelligence operations. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the legislation this fall.
Although a last-minute Senate objection to the slightly modified bill is possible, its backers have long seen the House as the make-or-break chamber. If the House passes the measure today, the Senate will vote on it tomorrow, officials said.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a leader of the House holdouts, yesterday endorsed compromise language that he said would safeguard the Pentagon's ability to control spy satellites and planes that sometimes deliver tactical intelligence immediately to troops in battle. Hunter's insistence on such language helped derail the legislation Nov. 20, and congressional and administration officials have scrambled to resolve the impasse.
The bill's supporters called Hunter's comments a turning point, but they acknowledged that the legislation faces a few more hurdles in the 108th Congress's closing days. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has opposed the bill because he says it does not include measures to better control immigrants. Hunter and other senior House members suggested yesterday that congressional leaders would promise to address immigration questions next year.
In the Senate, rules permit a single senator to delay legislation for days, but none has signaled plans to do so in this case. Without an objection, Senate leaders can pass the bill by voice vote and avoid summoning all senators back to Washington for a roll call.
Vice President Cheney spent part of the weekend phoning key House members to help broker the compromise, lawmakers said. The staffs of Susan Collins (R-Maine), the chief Senate negotiator, and Hunter exchanged proposals Saturday and Sunday.
The final agreement was reached yesterday, with a proposal by Collins that the president issue guidelines that "respect and not abrogate the statutory responsibilities of the heads of departments," including that of the secretary of defense.
Last night, the White House issued a letter signed by President Bush saying "it is imperative that Congress act this week" to pass the bill. Regarding Hunter's concerns about maintaining Pentagon control of spy satellites and airplanes, the president said, "It is my intention to ensure that the principles of unity of command and authority are fully protected."
"I also believe the Conference took an important step in strengthening our immigration laws by, among other items, increasing the number of border patrol agents and detention beds," the president added. "There were other measures proposed that were not incorporated into the bill. . . . I look forward to working with the Congress early in the next session to address these other issues, including improving our asylum laws and standards for issuing driver's licenses."
The bill that emerged from lengthy House-Senate negotiations would create a director of national intelligence and a national counterterrorism center. It would fund more border control agents and detention facilities, but it would not take further measures -- such as denying driver's licenses to illegal immigrants -- that some House Republicans want.
Centralizing overall authority in the new director, lawmakers and commission members believe, would result in more coordination of operations and exchange of information among the 15 agencies that make up the intelligence community. The commission concluded that the current director of central intelligence, who also runs the CIA, is too focused on agency operations and does not exercise the authority needed to coordinate operations throughout the government.
The compromise's biggest test will come this morning at the House GOP caucus. In a similar meeting Nov. 20, Hunter and Sensenbrenner spoke against the bill, and so many members applauded that Hastert blocked further action. Hastert's spokesman, John Feehery, said last night that after this morning's caucus meeting, "hopefully we'll have a vote" by the full House.
Hunter, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters yesterday that the compromise language "directs the president to write regulations that protect the chain of command" regarding intelligence-gathering aircraft and satellites. Traditionally, he said, the defense secretary can order such planes and satellites to send their information directly to commanders in combat.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, also embraced the language. Warner and Hunter acknowledged that subsequent presidents may revise the regulations, possibly giving the intelligence director more influence over the priorities of spy planes and satellites.
Warner said, however, that "we would be hopeful that we've carefully rewritten this law [so] that there would not be any substantial variance" from the "chain of command" tradition.
Collins and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), the ranking Democratic negotiator, praised Hunter for embracing what they called "the new language that we authored clarifying the military chain-of-command issue."