WASHINGTON – Family members of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 (search), terror attacks say the one slim chance of an intelligence reform bill passing Congress this year rests in the hands of President Bush.
The Sept. 11 Family Steering Committee (search) and the heads of the Sept. 11 commission (search) on Tuesday briefed the media on the bill's languishing status and their efforts to overcome opposition to the measure.
One Sept. 11 widow said she's angry with congressional members who failed to vote on the new bill and said Congress must act on it now.
"We're here as widows and moms and daughters of those who died on September 11th to remind Congress of what another intelligence failure will cost and hope that when they reconvene they think for just a moment about last week and the empty chair at the Thanksgiving table of every 9/11 family," steering committee member Beverly Eckhert said.
Later in the day, Thomas Kean (search) and Lee Hamilton (search), the chairman and vice-chairman respectively of the independent panel that investigated the attacks, met privately with Vice President Dick Cheney to encourage him to push Congress on the intelligence reform matter. Kean said it's imperative that Congress acts before another attack occurs.
"The status quo has failed" to keep the nation safe, the former New Jersey governor said before his meeting with Cheney. "Reform is an urgent matter, and reform simply must not wait until after the next attack."
Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman, added that the window of opportunity to enact reforms won't stay open for long.
Bush has urged House and Senate Republicans to pass a compromise package reached before the election. But two House committee chairmen say they have very strong concerns that the bill would add more bureaucracy and, in some cases, impede critical intelligence getting to soldiers in the field.
Reps. James Sensenbrenner (search) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Duncan Hunter (search) of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, are opposed to the bill on two sticking points: immigration policies that allow illegal aliens to obtain driver's licenses, as the Sept. 11 hijackers did, and military command and control of intelligence for war fighters.
Hunter has said that turning over the budget authority to a national intelligence director will leave the Pentagon exposed. But Hamilton said Tuesday that those charges are incorrect.
"It is wartime. We would not support a bill that undercuts support to our troops. The commander in chief supports this bill. The military gets, and should get, priority for intelligence support. Any time troops are in harm's way, the military goes to the top of the priority list for intelligence collection, to support troops or save lives ... Nothing in this bill changes the intelligence support to our troops," he said.
Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., told FOX News that the bill is not the right place to sort out Sensenbrenner's demands about immigrant driver's licenses.
"I don't mind that they opposed the bill ... but what they're also able to do is prevent the bill from coming to the floor of the House," Shays said. "The real question is, should he kill the bill and not allow the intelligence reforms to pass? I think that's a mistake."
Speaking at a press conference in Ottawa with Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, Bush said Tuesday that he has met with Hunter, Sensenbrenner and others to try to work out the kinks, and he reiterated his desire to see something passed soon.
"I believe the bill is necessary and important and hope we can get it done next week," he said. "I look forward to speaking with [House] Speaker [Dennis] Hastert and [Senate Majority] Leader [Bill] Frist here before the week is out to express to them … I'm for the bill, again."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that high-ranking Bush aides, including senior political adviser Karl Rove, were attending a three-day Republican congressional retreat in Virginia that started Tuesday, and will discuss with House and Senate GOP members whether something can be worked out.
Sept. 11 family members say the bill cannot and should not be placed in jeopardy by congressional obstructionists while terrorists are still trying to attack the United States. But not all Sept. 11 family members agree on the merits of the measure. The Family Steering Committee fervently supports a bill drafted largely by the Senate with participation from Cheney's staff. Families for a Secure America (search) doesn't want any measure passed that doesn't include tougher immigration rules and stricter standards for driver's licenses.
Congressional Democrats say the president must put pressure on reluctant Republicans.
"The president has to prevail on the speaker and the Republican leadership in the House to get the job done for the safety of America," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.
But Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri said the rush to finish is not the priority. "I don't think we can pass an intelligence bill that is flawed and come back and repass it later," he said.
Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Capitol Hill next week and likely will deal with intelligence reform in some form but no formal action on the issue is expected. If nothing is accomplished this session, lawmakers in the new Congress will have to start from scratch drafting intelligence reform legislation in January.
"I think we're going to have a vote on the 6th [of December]," Shays told FOX News. "It has the support of the American people, the [Sept. 11] commission, most members of Congress, and it will make us safer. When you add all that up, it's hard for me to imagine that the speaker, anyone, will hold that bill up from coming to the floor."
Meanwhile, efforts are already underway to implement some of the Sept. 11 commission's 37 recommendations in the 575-page final report it released this summer.
In November, Bush ordered an interagency group from the State, Justice and Defense departments and the CIA to devise a plan that could expand the Pentagon's role in covert operations, a function the CIA traditionally performs. The president also set a 90-day deadline for review of any matters relating to this decision and told the CIA director to emphasize rebuilding the CIA's analytic capabilities, also recommended by the panel.
FOX News' Major Garrett, Kelly Wright and Liza Porteus contributed to this report.