WASHINGTON – The House overwhelmingly approved an intelligence reform bill Tuesday evening, clearing the way for the law's expected passage in the Senate by Wednesday.
House lawmakers passed the bill 336 to 75. The measure was the product of months of negotiating over language in the bill that was objectionable to the House and Senate Armed Services Committee chairmen.
President Bush (search) has said he would sign the legislation.
The bill seeks to overhaul a national intelligence network that failed to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks (search), combining under one official control of 15 spy agencies, intensifying aviation and border security and allowing more wiretaps of suspected terrorists.
"We have come a long way toward taking steps that will ensure that we do not see another September 11th," said House Rules chairman David Dreier, R-Calif. Now "we have in place a structure that will ensure that we have the intelligence capability to deal with conflicts on the ground wherever they exist."
The Republican-majority House voted to send the Senate legislation to create a new national intelligence director, establish a counterterrorism center, set priorities for intelligence gathering and tighten U.S. borders. The measure would implement the biggest change to U.S. intelligence gathering and analysis since the creation of the CIA (search) after World War II to deal with the newly emerging Cold War.
The new structure should help the nation's 15 intelligence agencies work together to protect the country from attacks like the ones that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, lawmakers said.
"I have always said that good people need better tools. Here come the tools to help good people succeed," said Rep. Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
The GOP-controlled Senate plans to pass the bill Wednesday and send it to Bush for his signature.
Congressional approval would be a victory for Bush, whose leadership was questioned after House Republicans refused to vote on the bill two weeks ago despite his urging.
"The president was monitoring the debate on C-SPAN in the conference room on Air Force One," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said. "The president is very pleased with House passage. He knows that this bill will make America safer. ... He greatly looks forward to Senate passage and ultimately to signing the bill into law."
Heavy and persistent lobbying by the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission and families of attack victims kept the legislation alive through the summer political conventions, the election and a post-election lame duck session of Congress. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney also pushed hard in recent days.
Bush's support was "important for the future of the president's relations with members of Congress," said Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and the lead Senate negotiator.
Families of several Sept. 11 victims held hands and wept as the House passed the legislation. Bill Harvey, a New Yorker whose wife, Sara Manley, was killed at the World Trade Center a month after the couple wed, said the victory was also a sad reminder.
"The vote took 15 minutes, and it was pretty emotional. I thought about her during the 15 minutes of the vote," he said.
The Sept. 11 commission, in its July report, said disharmony among the nation's 15 intelligence agencies contributed to the inability of government officials to stop the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The government failed to recognize the danger posed by Al Qaeda and was ill-prepared to respond to the terrorist threat, the report concluded.
"We are going to create a more aggressive, a more vibrant and a more organized intelligence community that is going to give policy-makers the information that they need to make the appropriate decisions," said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich. "It's also going to give and continue to give very, very good information to our war-fighters."
The bill includes a host of anti-terrorism provisions, such as allowing officials to wiretap "lone wolf" terrorists and improving airline baggage screening procedures. It increases the number of full-time border patrol agents by 2,000 per year for five years and imposes new federal standards on information that driver's licenses must contain.
House GOP leaders held up action on the bill for two weeks because Armed Services chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., was concerned that the new intelligence director might insert himself into the chain of command between the president and military commanders in the field.
The legislation moved forward after Hunter and the bill's negotiators came to an agreement Monday on language clarifying the president's control.
"The president as well as his team worked with Congressman Hunter as well as all the congressional leaders on making sure that all concerns were addressed," Duffy said.
The compromise language ensures that battlefield commanders will take orders from "the secretary of defense and above him from the president of the United States," Hunter said, and they have "every military asset under his command, including intelligence assets."
Some Republicans, however, still don't like the measure, with 67 voting against final passage. House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., is upset because it doesn't prohibit states from giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants or change asylum laws to make it more difficult for terrorists to get into the country.
"Good intelligence is useless without good homeland security," Sensenbrenner said Tuesday.
Sensenbrenner and his supporters extracted a promise from GOP leaders that their illegal-immigration provisions would be attached to a separate bill when the new Congress convenes next year.
Other Republicans said they would oppose the whole overhaul bill because they saw it as useless.
"I believe creating a national intelligence director is a huge mistake," said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill. "It's another bureaucracy, it's another layer of government. It would not have prevented 9/11 and it will not prevent another 9/11."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.