WASHINGTON - With the House voting yesterday to overhaul the nation's intelligence network, Republicans handed President Bush a victory - but not before conservatives exacted a high price.
To reach the crucial deal on the measure, which the House passed 336-75 last night and is scheduled for final Senate approval today, leaders had to promise a powerful committee chairman, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, that they would schedule a vote and push for enactment early next year of strict immigration provisions he said were vital to fighting terrorism.
The bill, based on recommendations from the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, would consolidate control of 15 spy agencies under a new national intelligence director, create a counterterrorism center and tighten border and aviation security.
Sensenbrenner's immigration proposals, which are backed enthusiastically by House conservatives but enjoy little support in the more moderate Senate and only lukewarm backing by Bush, threatened to kill the broader intelligence deal - and with it, the president's chance for success on a measure that had become an early test of his postelection power.
So in a classic behind-the-scenes bargain that allowed everyone to declare victory, Republicans overruled Sensenbrenner and dropped the immigration provisions from the intelligence bill, but promised him the House would revisit the issue in a few months.
By relentlessly pushing immigration reforms, Sensenbrenner emerged from negotiations with a stronger hand and a fierce determination to have his way on the issue next year.
"These provisions are not too controversial or irrelevant - they are vital," Sensenbrenner said. "I will not rest until these provisions are enacted into law, and I will bring them up relentlessly until they are completed."
The fight also sent a subtle but unmistakable reminder to Bush that he would face a struggle within his own party next year over some of his favorite proposals, including one to create a program allowing illegal immigrants to gain temporary legal "guest worker" status. Sensenbrenner leads the Judiciary Committee, which controls immigration legislation.
Sensenbrenner "feels like this has been elevated to a much higher level of public awareness and support," said Rep. Charles W. "Chip" Pickering Jr., a Mississippi Republican, as he left a party discussion of the intelligence measure. Backers of immigration changes "believe that today, they're in a much better position to move this issue than they were when this began."
Sensenbrenner fought to include provisions to deny driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, make it more difficult for immigrants to win asylum, and expedite deportations of people in the country illegally.
The House included the reforms in its intelligence bill, but the Senate resisted them strongly. Sen. Susan M. Collins, the Maine Republican who was a chief author of the agreement, called the provisions "highly controversial," and said they "would have been poison pills for this bill, regardless of their merits apart from this bill."
"We just could not let the most significant reforms of our intelligence community in 50 years go down because of controversy over issues that were not recommended by the 9/11 Commission and were not central to the bill," she said.
The Sept. 11 hijackers had several driver's licenses, some obtained fraudulently. The commission called for new national standards for issuing licenses, but did not specify who should be allowed to obtain one.
Left for another day were tough questions about how much leeway Bush will have to push his immigration proposal, and whether after the intelligence fight he will be forced to accept strict border security measures as its price.
"It was a bargain of necessity, because the president had put his prestige on the line, and the Republicans had to find a way of saving face while satisfying the president's demands," said Marshall Wittman, a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council.
Sixty-seven Republicans joined eight Democrats in voting against the measure, which was backed by 152 Republicans, 183 Democrats and an independent. In the Maryland delegation, Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore joined six Democrats in voting for the bill. Western Maryland Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett cast the lone nay vote.