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Inside Politics

Bush's help sought on intelligence reform

House chairmen stand firm after White House lobbying

Sensenbrenner says of the intelligence reform bill: "It's better to do it right than to do it in a half-baked manner."
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Two GOP House committee chairmen who helped block an intelligence reform bill defended their actions Monday and insisted they will not relent, despite intensive arm-twisting by the Bush administration and Republican leaders.

"I'm not going to cave," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican who wants the bill changed to stop states from issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

"I don't like to vote for things on serious issues that might look good on a bumper sticker but which I know have so many loopholes that they won't work."

After fielding calls over the weekend from President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, Sensenbrenner met Monday with Cheney for a previously scheduled session during which the intelligence bill became a prime topic, according to an aide to the chairman.

Sensenbrenner appeared unmoved in a post-meeting interview on CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight."

"It's better to do it right than to do it in a half-baked manner that ends up coming back and endangering the American people," he said, noting that the September 11, 2001, hijackers had 63 valid driver's licenses among them, "and you can bet they used them to get on the planes."

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter objected to the bill on the ground that it shifts too much control over intelligence operations and budgets from the military to a new national intelligence director.

The California Republican said those changes could compromise the flow of information to troops on the battlefield.

"Those soldiers whose lives depend on that lifeline, when it has the prospect of taking that away, adding to confusion and maybe translating into combat casualties -- that's not good for the country," said Hunter, whose son fought in the Iraq war.

"So my point is, you can have a good reform, but in doing that, you don't want to hurt the troops that are in the field."

The intelligence reform bill, which is supported by Bush, came out of recommendations from the bipartisan commission that investigated the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

After the Senate and House came up with different versions of the measure, a conference committee hammered out a compromise that sailed through the Senate with a 96-2 vote in October.

But with Congress headed toward adjournment for the year, House Speaker Dennis Hastert pulled the bill from the floor Saturday after running into opposition from within his own ranks.

Although supporters of the bill insist that the creation of the new national intelligence director will not compromise military operations, Hunter's position was backed up by Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who sent a letter to lawmakers several weeks ago urging them to let the Pentagon keep much of its current control over intelligence matters.

A chief sticking point is how much control the intelligence director would have -- particularly over the estimated $80 billion intelligence budget.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts said the objections to the changes were a battle over turf, and he insisted that the bill would do nothing to disadvantage troops.

"There isn't anybody in the Congress that I know of that wants to do anything that would harm that actionable intelligence to the war fighter, especially during this difficult insurgency we're fighting in Iraq," the Kansas Republican said on CNN's "Inside Politics."

Timothy Roemer, a Democratic member of the 9/11 commission, agreed.

"The 9/11 commission would not put the war fighter in harm's way," Roemer said on CNN's "American Morning."

"We've lost more people in America in the war on terror -- 3,000 -- than we have our brave soldiers in Iraq, where we've lost 1,200 people," said Roemer, a former representative from Indiana and now president of the Center for National Policy, a Washington-based nonprofit, nonpartisan policy think tank.

"It is time for the White House and the Congress to protect the American people."

Although the bill might have still passed with Democratic votes, a Hastert spokesman said the Illinois Republican didn't want to split the GOP over the issue and wanted a "majority of the majority" to support it.

Some Democrats charged that Hastert and other GOP leaders didn't want the minority party to get credit for passing the bill, which is supported by many families of 9/11 victims.

Lawmakers could come back after Thanksgiving to pass the intelligence bill if the impasse in the House can be overcome.

If not, the new Congress in January will have to start from scratch, wiping out months of discussions and compromises that crafted the measure.

'Classic confrontation'

Saturday's action by some conservatives lawmakers left many on both sides of the aisle frustrated. It also called into question Bush's influence over congressional Republicans.

"This is the classic confrontation you see in Washington ... because the president now has been challenged directly by the leadership of the Congress and by the lobbyists and by the bureaucracy," 9/11 commission member John Lehman, a Republican, said on "American Morning."

"Now he's got to show who's in charge. And there's no doubt he can pass this. He can get it passed if he chooses to use his political capital and to hold accountable any members that obstruct this passage," said Lehman, who was secretary of the navy under President Reagan and now heads his own investment firm.

After winning re-election with a majority of the popular vote, which he did not get in 2000, Bush told reporters he had won "political capital" that he planned to spend.

Speaking to reporters Sunday in Chile following the 21-nation Asian-Pacific economic summit, Bush said he was "disappointed" the bill did not pass, and vowed, "When I get home, I look forward to getting it done."

CNN's Ed Henry, Steve Turnham and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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