WASHINGTON – Congress is on the brink of making some historic changes in national security as lawmakers get ready to vote on an intelligence reform bill that could be brought to the House floor on Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said Tuesday morning that the bill will be introduced in the House and passed soon, likely Tuesday. The Senate will then address it either later Tuesday or Wednesday. Afterward, it will be sent to President Bush for his signature.
"This legislation will establish an information-sharing environment so finally the computers can speak to one another and finally we will have someone in charge of coordinating that sharing of information. That will make America safer," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a member of the Senate Permanent Committee on Intelligence, said at a Tuesday press conference.
The revised measure is the product of months of negotiating over language in the bill that was objectionable to the House and Senate Armed Services Committee chairmen.
"My sense is ... that it's a workable compromise," Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told FOX News on Tuesday. "It's probably a compromise that's going to work and that it will overwhelmingly be approved in the Senate."
Action on the measure on the 63rd anniversary of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor would be symbolic, given that President Bush and others have compared the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks (search) that inspired the intelligence reforms to that gruesome day in 1941.
Retiring Sen. Bob Graham, former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that even though the bill is on the verge of passage, it won't make America safer right away.
"It's going to take a while, you don't make a massive change like this and overnight get results," the Florida Democrat told FOX News. "I think the test of this bill will be on the 73rd anniversary of Pearl Harbor (10 years from now) — can America feel we are significantly safer because of the changes that were formed, that the intelligence community has undergone?"
Two House Republicans opposed the bill but House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (search) came around to supporting the measure after language was inserted that ensured the military's chain of command would have immediate intelligence for troops on the battlefield.
"We think that our provision is a very strong one because it protects this chain of command ... all the assets are at the command of the war fighting commander," the California Republican told FOX News on Tuesday.
"We worked very hard to address some concerns that had been raised by Congressman Duncan Hunter and others in the House about the impact of this bill on intelligence flowing to our troops," added Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of the lead cosponsors of the Senate version.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (search) is still against the bill, however.
"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 in a statement issued late Monday.
The Wisconsin Republican wants more rigorous immigration restrictions placed in the bill, including a tightening of rules governing the issuance of drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants. He points out that the Sept. 11 hijackers had 45 drivers' licenses among them that they never should have been able to obtain.
Sensenbrenner's proposal has sparked debate over concerns that drivers' licenses are regulated by states and should not be superceded by a federal mandate. Several lawmakers close to the negotiations have suggested that the immigration provision will be brought up in a separate immigration reform bill early next year.
Despite the lack of immigration provisions, Bush, in a letter to Congress, said the bill should be passed anyway. "These omissions from the final bill should not prevent the Congress from passing this historic legislation now," Bush said.
Hunter and Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Monday voiced their support for the bill after they said language describing the chain of command for soldiers receiving intelligence in the field was now satisfactory.
"Today has been a good day for the people who wear the uniform of the United States military," Hunter said.
Hunter 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. 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.
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.
In a press conference Tuesday, Collins, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said she would never have drafted legislation meant to harm troops in the field and that's why negotiators agreed to "help ease the concerns" Hunter and others had without weakening the bill.
"This bill preserves total Defense Department control over technical military intelligence, the kind that the warfighters most depend on. Secondly, there was nothing in the bill that would alter the chain of command, but we felt that reassurance was appropriate and would subtract not at all from the fundamental reform," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., ranking member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, who drafted the Senate bill with Collins.
Overhauling the nation's intelligence community will also create a national counterterrorism center and initiate a wide range of other measures that will create cooperation and better communication between intelligence agencies, the FBI, CIA and Defense Department.
"I think the administration is right — that we need to have law enforcement tools that allow the FBI to go after these lone wolf terrorists, whether or not they're formally associated with Al Qaeda or other recognized terrorists groups," Collins said, referring to terrorists such as Richard Reid (search), the so-called "shoe bomber."
Other political observers denied that the bill created more red tape to get through for the troops on the front lines.
"We wouldn't propose a bill that did that — we actually streamlined the bureaucracy both with a strong national intelligence director that can get things done … and we have the ability to create this national counterterrorism center that fuses more than a dozen different centers on terrorism out there and bureaucracies out there into one to get the job done," said Tim Roemer, a former Indiana Democratic congressman who served on the Sept. 11 commission.
The House returned for a lame duck session Monday to sort out the details of the stalled intelligence reform bill; this week is the last chance for lawmakers to pass it this year.
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 an NID.
"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 (search).
Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, praised Bush for his work on the measure.
"Some people, including me, were not sure which side of this [Bush] was on in the early days or whether he might be on both sides of this. But, it turned out in the later weeks that he and his White House staff were all over this and really helped to bring this across the finish line. That was not an easy thing to do," Harman said, adding that Bush had made a good first in trying to unite a polarized Congress.
"This victory is a huge victory for bipartisanship," Harman said.
To Be Dealt With Later …
Many lawmakers and political observers said the immigration concerns that weren't addressed in this bill can be addressed when the new Congress comes into session in January.
"For those congressmen to say that they're not going to improve our intelligence activities because they didn't get the pet project that they wanted ... that's just absurd," former Washington Sen. Slade Gorton, a Democrat who sat on the Sept. 11 commission, told FOX News on Tuesday. "They need to go ahead, they can bring their issues up later."
Collins noted that some immigration provisions were included in the current version of the intelligence bill and that, of course, more can be done next year to make sure terrorists don't get their hands on certain forms of identification.
"We do need to overhaul our immigration laws, the president is committed to that, I'm committed to that," Collins told FOX News, "but [Sensenbrenner's requests] were highly controversial and divisive provisions — many of which were opposed by the administration. We accepted several that were less controversial."
FOX News' Sharon Kehnemui Liss and Liza Porteus contributed to this report.