The U.S. Senate is expected to vote on its version of legislation implementing a sweeping reorganization of the nation's intelligence community as early as Wednesday, following the recommendations of a bipartisan commission that probed the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
The legislation would, among other things, establish a national intelligence director with strong authority over budget and personnel matters, and create a counterterrorism center to coordinate the gathering and sharing of intelligence by federal agencies.
Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, and chief sponsor of the bill, spoke to reporters Tuesday. "The end is in sight for concluding this bill," she said. "I am very pleased that to date we have been able to fend off all of the efforts to undermine the key provisions of the bill."
Among the efforts that were defeated by the Senate was an amendment by Senator Robert Byrd, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, to eliminate the budgetary powers recommended for the new intelligence director. Mr. Byrd argued that the bill gives too much power to one person.
"This is a debate about power, and who should wield it: the elected representatives of the people, or an unelected, unaccountable bureaucrat, nestled deep inside our nation's intelligence agencies," he said. "It goes to the heart of the balance of power between the executive and the legislative branches of government."
The Senate also agreed to declassify the total spent each year on intelligence gathering, defeating an amendment by Senator Ted Stevens, the Republican chairman of the Appropriations Committee, to bar such disclosure.
Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut and co-sponsor of the legislation, said the intelligence community is spending taxpayers' money and needed to account for it.
The ability of the legislation's sponsors to deflect challenges from key Senators highlighted the momentum behind intelligence reform, and the influence of the members of the September 11 commission, who have been urging lawmakers not change their proposals.
Senator Stevens appeared angry at the intense efforts of the commission members. "They are demanding that we act. Are they registered lobbyists? Are they? What right do have they to push this Senate so hard? I think we should take some time and consider what we are doing. If we are not careful, we will destroy the intelligence system we are trying to reorganize," he said.
But sponsors of the bill argued otherwise, saying the United States could not afford to wait to reform its intelligence community amid continuing terrorist threats.
If the Senate passes the bill, the House is expected to act on its own legislation days later. Differences in both versions will have to be reconciled before a final bill is sent to President Bush for his signature.