WASHINGTON – Language describing the chain of command for soldiers receiving intelligence in the field is now satisfactory in the intel reform bill bottled up in Congress, earning it the support of the chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services committee, the two leaders said Monday.
The agreement helps clear the way for a vote on the measure in the House on Tuesday.
"Today has been a good day for the people who wear the uniform of the United States military," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (search), R-Calif., said. He explained that lawmakers and the White House had come up with a system for a chain of command that enables soldiers in the field to maintain their access to intelligence that will help them target enemies in the field.
"We have received language that we think has done that very effectively so we have agreed that we will support this conference report, since it now addresses their concerns," Hunter said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner agreed that the intelligence reform bill was now good enough.
"Very simply, ladies and gentlemen, it was necessary to amend this language from the conference report as it is written to the new language in order to allow the members of the Cabinet and other heads of agencies and departments to simply manage their departments, and secondly if something goes wrong they're the ones who are accountable. So management and accountability were our goals," Warner, R-Va., said.
The House of Representatives (search) returned for a lame duck session Monday to sort out the details of the stalled intelligence reform bill. Though the conference report had already won support in the Senate, that support appeared to be fading after Hunter brought up his objections.
Opponents of the bill stood firm in advance of the measure, saying they were concerned that the legislation could delay or hamper the ability of military commanders to get satellite intelligence information to their troops on the ground.
Hunter, who had been the chief opponent to the legislation, explained that he did not want the bill to create confusion on the battlefield by turning over intelligence authority to a national intelligence director, whose post will be created by the legislation. Hunter explained that the new language makes sure that the chain of command goes from the president to the secretary of defense to the combatant commander despite any detour over to an NID.
In Iraq, the combatant commander is Gen. John Abizaid. Hunter said all the assets of a particular theater, including signal intelligence, will continue to be available to Abizaid and his subordinates, creating a safety net around those soldiers seeking the information.
"We always say our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines deserve the best, and the best thing you can do is make sure they've got the equipment they need to get the job done, and today overhead intelligence is as important to our warfighters on the ground as Cavalry scouts were in the old days. They are the eyes and ears of our combatants on the ground," Hunter said.
This week will be the last chance for lawmakers to pass the stalled bill this year. President Bush has been urging Congress to pass the legislation, which is based on several of the Sept. 11 commission's anti-terror recommendations, particularly the creation of a national counterterrorism center and a national intelligence director.
"I call on Congress to pass the intelligence bill — it's a good piece of legislation ... it's a piece of legislation that's important to the security of our country," Bush said during a press conference Monday morning with Iraqi Interim President Ghazi al-Yawer.
"I certainly hope the bill gets to my desk soon. I believe we've addressed the concern by the majority of the members of the House and the Senate," Bush added. Later in the day, Bush met with lawmakers on the bill and several other issues.
Early Monday afternoon, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said the president was not going to specify precisely what he wanted in the bill. McClellan said Bush wants a bill completed and was concerned about the chain of command issue brought up by Hunter, but he wouldn't say whether the bill addressed it adequately.
Before the compromise, however, a key Democrat on Capitol Hill said Hunter really had no choice but to make a deal.
"The writing was on the wall. He had to accept that because he would have been rolled. In non-legalistic terms he would have lost because the leadership of the House had to realize that they had to pass this," Senate Minority Leader-elect Harry Reid said.
Deal's Not Done Yet
Also demanding attention has been Rep. James Sensenbrenner (search), R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who wants to tighten rules on illegal immigrants, in particular by prohibiting states from giving out drivers' licenses to illegals. Some lawmakers say Sensenbrenner's issue does not belong in this bill.
"Chairman Sensenbrenner is very concerned about immigration, but the 9/11 commission report said the failure was primarily intelligence communications. Let's correct it," Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., told FOX News.
Hunter said he agreed with Sensenbrenner that individuals issued drivers' licenses in the United States should have documents to support their legal residency here. But, he said that is not his battle. He said the legislation is not a done deal, and the language needs to be changed first. He said he would not urge House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to get the bill to the floor because it's not his place to say whether everyone's issues are sorted out, though his are.
In a statement issued late Monday, Sensenbrenner said he still cannot support the bill.
"Unfortunately, even with these improvements, the current bill is woefully incomplete and one I cannot support. Americans deserve a complete bill so that we can prevent another 9/11 from occurring. Border security and immigration reform are vital components of our homeland security efforts," he said.
Despite Sensenbrenner's continued opposition to the bill, House Republicans will likely meet Tuesday to discuss moving forward anyway, House Republican Conference Secretary Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio said.
Rep. Jane Harman (search), the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told FOX News on Monday that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is anticipating a vote on the bill to be held Tuesday night.
But "I would think the House has to act first — the House is the problem — I think we're ready to act," said the California lawmaker before the deal. "My view is, Representatives Sensenbrenner and Hunter should be free to vote 'no' in the House but the rest of us should be able to vote 'yes.'"
The Key to Reform
The post of national intelligence director, which would be responsible for executing anti-terror measures, has been the most controversial element of the bill. The measure, supported by many Senate lawmakers and House Democrats, calls for handing over to the NID authority the budget of 15 different spy agencies.
The Sept. 11 commission recommended, among other things, the establishment of a National Counterterrorism Center (search), which collects and shares intelligence on terrorist threats. Last month, Bush also issued two directives instructing the FBI and CIA to hire new personnel, and press forward with updating and streamlining the agencies to meet new threats.
In his weekly radio address Saturday, Bush said he had done all he could to enact recommendations from the panel, but that the rest was up to Congress.
"Other key changes require new laws," Bush said.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were said to oppose several provisions of the bill, although Myers last week said he's satisfied his concerns are addressed in the measure. Warner praised Myers and Vice President Dick Cheney for working out the details of the compromise. Warner added that the compromise would not have been possible without Bush's skillful and forceful negotiating.
If the bill fails because of complaints from defense officials when the president is pushing it, Harman said, that won't bode well for future legislation from the White House.
"If the president and vice president are going to get rolled on this bill, imagine what's going to happen in the next Congress," she said, particularly on huge issues such as the president's plan to privatize Social Security, which a number of lawmakers in Congress are opposed to, "and if they plant their flags, they won't let it pass," Harman said.
FOX News' Sharon Kehnemui Liss and Liza Porteus contributed to this report.