House to Return for Intel Reform Debate
WASHINGTON – The House of Representatives (search) returns for a lame duck session Monday to sort out the details of a stalled intelligence reform bill whose support in the Senate could be fading.
Opponents of the bill are standing firm in advance of the measure, saying they are concerned that the legislation could delay or hamper the ability of military commanders to get satellite intelligence information to their troops on the ground. Rep. Duncan Hunter (search), R-Calif., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is the chief opponent of the bill as it is written now. He told FOX News on Sunday that he wants provisions added to safeguard intelligence for the military.
"Let me tell you, Marines, Army, Navy and Air Force have all talked to me, and they've talked to the entire House, incidentally, in classified sessions, telling them how concerned they are about this bill without these types of provisions included," 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 will continue to work with the Congress to reach an agreement on this intelligence bill," Bush said in his weekly radio address. "I urge members of Congress to act next week so I can sign these needed reforms into law."
The post of national intelligence director, which would be responsible for executing anti-terror measures, is 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. Hunter says that leaves the Pentagon exposed, but the president has argued otherwise.
"The legislation I support preserves the existing chain of command and leaves America's 15 intelligence agencies, organizations and offices in their current departments," Bush said in his radio address. "Yet the director of national intelligence will oversee all of America's intelligence efforts to help ensure that our government can find and stop terrorists before they strike."
In his remarks, Bush said he has done what he can to enact the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations without congressional authority. Among those changes is the establishment of a National Counterterrorism Center, which collects and shares intelligence on terrorist threats. Last month, he also issued two directives instructing the FBI (search) and CIA to hire new personnel, and press forward with updating and streamlining the agencies to meet new threats.
"But other key changes require new laws," Bush said.
Also demanding attention is Rep. James Sensenbrenner, 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 while worthy of consideration, 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.
On Saturday, the two senators leading the effort to pass the overhaul of the intelligence agencies said they are pleased with Bush's commitment to passing the legislation.
"We are also pleased that he has endorsed key provisions of the bill, and is working so hard to ensure that Congress votes on this historic legislation ... We share his hope that the bill passes next week so that he can sign it into law before the end of the year," Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., chairman and ranking Democrat, respectively, of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a written statement released Saturday.
Leading Democrats, however, are blasting Bush and his Republican colleagues for failing to agree on key intelligence reforms. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., refused to bring the legislation to a vote two weeks ago. Since then, several lawmakers have said Bush is not being forceful enough with congressional Republicans.
"It is so important that we pass that [bill]. The American people are depending on us to feel more safe and secure, and right now we have the fact that the speaker of the House has said that he will not let it pass unless there is a majority of the majority voting on it. That's foolishness," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Sunday.
Rep. Chris Cox (search), R-Calif., who helped craft the House bill, agreed that it needs to be passed, but said additional concerns can be addressed.
"The president of the United States, as much as anyone else, wants to make sure that this is done right," Cox told FOX News. "Without question, there is a way for us to satisfy the needs of national security, both on the military side and on the domestic homeland security side. We will get it done."
Even though the Senate version of the bill passed overwhelmingly in October, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, said the measure could face problems in the Senate if Hunter's concerns are not addressed. Also still up in the air is whether the House GOP leadership will allow the bill to come to a vote on Monday when the body meets in Washington.
If the House passes the compromise, the Senate will come back this week to vote on the negotiated measure.
FOX News' Julie Kirtz and Sharon Kehnemui Liss contributed to this report.