President Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin are drafting a letter that would free the 24 American crew members of a downed Navy surveillance plane in China and establish "an understanding" between two countries locked in a heated dispute.
"We're making progress," Bush said Friday afternoon, reflecting growing but cautious optimism in his administration.
John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said after a CIA and Pentagon briefing that the letter "that will contain exchanges of views" on how the Navy spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter collided Sunday over the South China Sea.
The letter, Warner said, was moving from the ambassador and foreign minister level and "is being reviewed both by our president and the president of China, so it will reflect a common understanding."
He said there would be no U.S. apology in the letter.
"I believe the ambassador and others expressed regret for loss of life. That will be embraced in the letter," Warner said.
The letter also will establish a framework for resolving the dispute.
Diplomats are floating the idea of resolving the problem with a special meeting of a joint maritime commission set up three years ago to enhance safety on the sea. This would give both sides a chance to state their own positions in the collision between the Navy plane and a Chinese fighter jet.
Friday saw another sign that tensions might be cooling. U.S. diplomats met for a second time with the imprisoned Americans, who were said to be in good spirits though they have been held on a Chinese island since Sunday.
The March 31 collision between a U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II surveillance plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter over the South China Sea has grown into a global row with serious implications, with China playing the part of the injured party and vociferously demanding an apology, and the U.S. complaining that China has essentially jailed American servicemen and servicewomen who did nothing wrong.
The crew members have been held by the Chinese since they made an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan.
On Friday, U.S. diplomats finally got a second chance to meet with the Navy crew, after several days in which Chinese officials denied them access. Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the U.S. Embassy's military attache in China, said that the 21 men and three women were doing well emotionally and had been given packages of toiletries, books and other supplies given to Chinese officials.
Shortly before noon ET, Secretary of State Colin Powell said there was "movement" in the effort to free the detained men and women.
"We are encouraged," he said.
The Chinese are ''taking good care'' of the crew, Powell said.
He said Sealock told President Bush that the Americans are being kept in Chinese officers' quarters -- in clean and well-lit surroundings, and that they are being served catered food from the outside.
The meeting had been delayed for several hours and went forward after a night of intense diplomacy, according to a senior White House official speaking on condition of anonymity.
Ambassador Joseph Prueher said another visit to the crew already was scheduled for Saturday, suggesting American officials didn't expect to have won their release by then.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said there is "enormous concern in the United States on behalf of their families, certainly on behalf of the government and on behalf of the American people about their status and their welfare. And we would look for the reassurance of actually seeing them."
The Chinese said Thursday that the crew members would be treated as lawbreakers and were being legitimately interrogated, a move the U.S. has strongly protested.
The U.S. insists the American plane was operating in international airspace -- beyond 12 miles of China's coastline when the collision accorded.
China considers its territorial sovereignty to begin 200 miles out from the shore
In Santiago, Chile, visiting Chinese President Jiang Zemin on Thursday said the United States should offer an apology.
"I have visited many countries, and I see that when people have an accident, the two groups involved, the two parts, always say excuse me," Jiang said.
Stopping short of an apology, Bush has expressed regret that the Chinese pilot is still missing and presumed dead but no more.
On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers have talked about denying China normal trade relations as punishment. Bush, meanwhile, is faced with a decision later in the month on what weapons to include in an annual arms package for Taiwan. Beijing considers the country a renegade province that should not be permitted to buy a modern radar system or other advanced items on a pending shopping list.
Also Thursday, Powell briefed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on developments. Earlier, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., who opposed trade concessions to China last year, said the United States should not reverse course now.
And Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said punishing China on trade was "very premature and it could be counterproductive."
Amid a flurry of diplomatic activity over the stranded plane and detained crew, the Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, said it was not possible to know how much sensitive information or equipment might have been lost to the Chinese until U.S. officials have had a chance to question the crew in detail.
In the meantime, he said, "We have taken what we consider to be prudent measures to minimize whatever compromise there may have been. But I can't provide you more details."