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Lame Ducks Not All in a Row on Intelligence Czar

Times Staff Writer

The lame-duck congressional session due to begin Monday is President Bush’s last chance this year to win passage of legislation putting a single director in overall charge of the nation’s 15 intelligence agencies.

Two House committee chairmen blocked the bill last month, despite appeals from the president for their support.

Although the leaders of the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission have warned that failure to pass the bill now will leave the nation vulnerable to terrorist attack, both opponents and supporters of the legislation say that only the president’s forceful intervention can ensure its passage.

At a White House bill-signing ceremony Friday, Bush told House and Senate members that he was working on it as hard as he could, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) told reporters afterward.

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Bush intended to address the stalled measure in his regular radio address this morning and also would send a letter to congressional leaders supporting the bill, White House officials said.

Aides said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) would probably bring the bill to a vote only if the White House had worked out language that satisfied House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) and Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Any changes would have to be acceptable to Senate negotiators. Hunter has said he fears the bill could jeopardize the military’s access to intelligence during times of war. Sensenbrenner wants the bill to address illegal immigration issues.

The House’s primary reason for returning to work Monday is to repeal a controversial provision in the $388-billion spending bill it passed last month that would allow appropriations committee members and staffers to look at tax returns. The Senate has voted to strip the controversial provision from the spending bill, and it is unclear what business the Senate will take up if there is no agreement on the intelligence measure.

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The uncertainty surrounding the intelligence bill has elevated what could have been a routine congressional housekeeping session to high-stakes political theater.

Congressional sources said the White House had significantly beefed up its lobbying in the past 72 hours, with Vice President Dick Cheney and Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. taking over the negotiations and fashioning new language meant to address Hunter’s concern that the Defense secretary retain control of combat-support intelligence agencies now housed within the Pentagon.

The challenge for Bush and Hastert is to find compromise language that will not alienate conservative lawmakers they will need later to help enact the president’s second-term priorities, such as changes to Social Security and tax reform.

At a Virginia retreat this week of the congressional Republican leadership, senior White House officials reportedly said they had fashioned chain-of-command language that they believed would satisfy Hunter.

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But in a telephone interview on Friday, Hunter said no one had presented him with new language. He insisted that the White House agreed with his position and that it was up to the Senate to change its language. For some in the Senate “to have painted the picture that this is an unreasonable idea that has come up out of nowhere is not reflective of reality,” Hunter said.

Senate negotiators had said that the director of national intelligence needs some authority over all the nation’s intelligence agencies in order to set systemwide priorities and force the sharing of information among agencies.

In a statement issued by his spokesman late Friday afternoon, Senate Armed Services Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), who voted for the Senate intelligence bill in October, said that he too was concerned about cutting the Pentagon out of the chain of command.

Warner is working “to resolve these issues with absolute clarity before the [bill] becomes law,” said spokesman John Ullyot.

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On Thursday, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that concerns he had raised about the legislation in a letter he wrote in October to Hunter had been addressed. Myers had written that he wanted funds for combat support intelligence agencies to go through the Pentagon, instead of through a national intelligence director. The Senate acceded to that request.

One senior congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the White House had carefully laid the groundwork for the president to avoid political damage if the bill were not passed next week.

“They have worked behind the scenes,” said the aide, who is familiar with the negotiations, “but the president has been insulated.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), coauthor of the Senate’s version of the intelligence reform bill, told reporters that she remained optimistic the bill would pass next week. Asked the source of her optimism, Collins said she was relying on “the incredible, persuasive powers of the president of the United States, the commander in chief, who wants this legislation.”

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