WASHINGTON - The House is poised to approve a broad reorganization of the nation's intelligence community, after White House and congressional negotiators struck a deal yesterday that won the backing of a senior Republican who had led a revolt in his party's ranks over the bill.
Leaders worked late into last night hammering out an agreement, endorsed by Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, that is expected to pave the way for Congress to send President Bush the measure this week.
Winning the support of Hunter, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee whose vehement opposition stalled the bill two weeks ago, was a crucial step toward enactment of the measure, which would create a new director of national intelligence with broad authority over spy agencies.
Bush reiterated his support for the measure and his call for Congress to pass it in a long-awaited two-page letter to congressional leaders yesterday.
"We are very close to a significant achievement that will better protect our country for generations to come, and now is the time to finish the job for the good of our national security," Bush wrote.
The bill will likely come to the House for a vote "sometime [today] - that's what we're hoping - but there's still a lot of work to be done," Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas said. "It's going to be a long night."
The Senate planned to follow suit tomorrow and send the measure to Bush, said Robert Stevenson, a spokesman for Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.
A dispute over the extent of the new national intelligence director's power sparked the stalemate. Proponents of the measure, including the Sept. 11 commission, believe all national intelligence must be consolidated under a new Cabinet-level intelligence director overseeing all 15 of the nation's spy agencies.
Hunter and some other Republicans feared that could deprive military commanders of control over tactical intelligence.
The breakthrough came yesterday, when Hunter reversed course, supporting broad authority for the intelligence director subject to changes he said would protect the authority of military commanders over intelligence assets they need to defend the nation.
In the end, the deal hinged on tweaking a few short phrases that carried huge weight in the tense negotiations.
Bargainers added language directing the president to issue rules for implementing the intelligence changes "in a manner that respects and does not abrogate the statutory responsibilities of the heads" of departments over their agencies.
They also scrapped wording that those rules should be issued "consistent with the provision of" the bill, which Hunter said could have empowered the new intelligence director to supersede a military commander's authority.
Through those changes, Hunter said, "we are building a fence around our ability to run effective combat operations. We think that was vitally necessary."
At an afternoon news conference, Hunter said he would support the new language because "it has now met the standard that we were most interested in, which is protecting our troops on the battlefield."
The measure still faces staunch opposition from another powerful Republican, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He said the bill was "woefully incomplete" because it omitted a provision he wrote that would deny illegal immigrants driver's licenses.
`Some work to do'
"It's not closed `til it's closed," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the Michigan Republican who chairs the Intelligence panel. "We've got some work to do. I've gotten out of the business of predicting when we will vote on this."
But leaders expressed confidence that Sensenbrenner's concerns could be allayed, perhaps through a commitment to take up that provision, along with other immigration restrictions he advocated, next year.
Bush said the absence of Sensenbrenner's provisions "should not prevent the Congress from passing this historic legislation now. I look forward to working with the Congress early in the next session to address these other issues," he wrote.
Republicans will discuss the measure this morning behind closed doors before deciding whether to vote on it. It was after such a meeting Nov. 20, when Hunter and Sensenbrenner made their cases against the bill, that Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois decided, despite strong support of the Senate, House Democrats and many House Republicans, that he would not bring it up for a vote.
A marathon set of talks ensued, testing Bush's sway among restive conservatives in his party. The president professed his support for the measure repeatedly, but appeared reluctant to apply direct pressure on Hastert - who must win re-election to his post when the new Congress convenes in January - to seal the deal.
Yesterday's agreement was brokered over the past few days by senior negotiators from the White House, including Vice President Dick Cheney's office, and congressional negotiators.