WASHINGTON – Defying President Bush, Reps. Duncan Hunter (search) and James Sensenbrenner (search) — who led opposition dooming legislation based on the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations — said they won't change their minds without Senate concessions.
"It'll be tougher now because the well got even more poisoned by the senators and their supporters thoroughly criticizing Duncan Hunter and myself by name on the talking head shows yesterday," Sensenbrenner told The Associated Press on Monday.
The two men turned back a last-second deal Saturday to pass stalled legislation to create a new national intelligence director and national counterterrorism center. The overhaul was supposed to help the intelligence community track terrorist threats and was one of the biggest legislative priorities of this year.
There was nothing left but recriminations on Monday, with most of Congress heading home for Thanksgiving and Bush still on an overseas trip. No meetings of the bill's negotiators have been planned.
The House and Senate scheduled Dec. 6-7 meetings just in case a deal is reached.
Bush personally lobbied House Republicans and told reporters Sunday that "it was clear I wanted the bill passed." But Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, spoke against the bill in a House GOP meeting Saturday afternoon, forcing Speaker Dennis Hastert to pull it.
That defiance will have repercussions, John Lehman, a former Navy secretary who worked under President Reagan, said in a television interview.
"This is the classic confrontation you see in Washington that they can sell tickets for," said Lehman, who also served on the Sept. 11 commission (search). "Because the president now has been challenged directly by the leadership of the Congress and by the lobbyists and by the bureaucracy. Now he's got to show who's in charge."
Hunter, R-Calif., echoed Pentagon concerns that the realignment of intelligence authority could interfere with the military chain of command and endanger troops in the field. Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., demanded that the bill also deal with anti-terrorism laws and illegal immigration.
Sensenbrenner said at first the Senate had refused to negotiate on his issues until two weeks ago. Then, in direct negotiation by phone with Bush on Air Force One, Sensenbrenner said he gave up on most of his demands — including tightening up driver's license requirements so illegal immigrants can't get them — after Bush called that a "poison pill."
But when informed by Bush's negotiators of Sensenbrenner's concession, Senate negotiators refused to budge on his other issue — reforming asylum laws so terrorists can't use them to enter the country — ensuring his opposition.
"The Senate's going to have to give in on some of this stuff," Sensenbrenner said after meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney.
Hunter said they asked his opinion in the Saturday GOP meeting, so he gave it to them.
"In a military situation, being confused about the chain of command is a dangerous thing," Hunter told The Associated Press Saturday night. "I was asked to give my opinion to the conference and the leadership, and it was having a bill with that part of the bill — the chain of command — pulled out of it would cause confusion and more casualties on the battlefield."
Hunter said he knew the president and Hastert wanted this bill, but "what we have to do here is exercise our best judgment."
"Having a son who just came back from a second tour in Fallujah, those are the folks I care about," Hunter said. "I just gave my best recommendation to the Republican conference."
Sensenbrenner said criticism would just make it harder to negotiate.
"It was tough to begin with. It will be even tougher after the Senate plus (GOP House Intelligence chairman Pete) Hoekstra had a press conference where they badmouthed Duncan Hunter and me, and everybody got on the talking head shows and pilloried Congressman Hunter and me," Sensenbrenner said.
On Hunter's and his issues, "the American people are overwhelmingly on our side," he said.