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Legislator takes stand for military

Congress's chief opponent of legislation to revamp the intelligence community says he remains unmoved, leaving the White House scrambling this weekend for a solution to the impasse that has frustrated the bill's backers and raised questions about President Bush's clout among Republican lawmakers.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., seen here in May with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, center, and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace, left, has shown staunch opposition to the intelligence reform bill.Charles Dharapak / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Congress's chief opponent of legislation to revamp the intelligence community says he remains unmoved, leaving the White House scrambling this weekend for a solution to the impasse that has frustrated the bill's backers and raised questions about President Bush's clout among Republican lawmakers.

For Duncan Hunter, the House Armed Services Committee chairman at the center of the logjam, the role is a familiar one. During 24 years in Congress, he has bucked Democratic as well as Republican presidents when he felt they provided too little money, equipment and weaponry for U.S. troops. When it comes to safeguarding satellite intelligence for troops in Iraq — the issue that prompted him to waylay the White House-backed bill last month — he has an unusually personal interest.

Hunter's son, a Marine lieutenant who has served two tours in Iraq, phoned him from embattled Fallujah and "told me to hang in there on the intel thing," the congressman said in an interview late last week. "A lot of military people have told me that," he added, but his accounts of his son, Duncan Duane Hunter, have proved especially moving to his House colleagues, several said.

Hunter (R-Calif.) has raised two main objections to the legislation that emerged from House-Senate negotiations: It would give the Pentagon insufficient budgetary control over intelligence operations and would make it possible for a director of national intelligence to override Pentagon efforts to deliver information from spy satellites immediately to troops at war. Hunter said in the interview that the budget issue had been resolved, but not the other.

"The military folks are very concerned about the chain-of-command issue," he said. "The Senate has got to move across the finish line on this." Senate leaders have said they will make no further compromises.

Champion of troops in the field
Hunter, a decorated Army Ranger in Vietnam, has long had a reputation as a champion of troops in the field. With the added emotional impact of his son's role in Iraq, his influence among rank-and-file House Republicans has reached a new level — one that caught the administration and Speaker J. Dennis Hastert by surprise last month.

On Nov. 20, Hastert (Ill.) urged GOP members to embrace the negotiated intelligence bill, which President Bush had endorsed. But after Hunter and another committee chairman addressed their colleagues in a closed meeting, so many Republicans voiced opposition that Hastert kept the measure from reaching a floor vote — even though there apparently were enough Democratic votes to pass it.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (Wis.), also criticized the bill, saying it lacked important curbs on illegal immigration. But White House efforts to resuscitate the legislation have focused mainly on Hunter's complaints.

Congress convenes tomorrow for a short session that many lawmakers say will mark the intelligence bill's last hope for 2004. White House officials and congressional aides are working to resolve the impasse.

A House vote on a large spending bill is set for 6 p.m. tomorrow. Hastert had hoped to vote on the intelligence measure after that, releasing members in time for the White House congressional Christmas party. Bush aides said the party will take place but the intelligence bill's status was unclear.

Standing firm
In the interview, Hunter said there was nothing uncomfortable or improper about a Republican committee chairman opposing a Republican commander in chief on a matter of Pentagon authority. "I think the system is working well," he said, "because my obligation ... is to the troops. We are a check and balance on the executive branch. I have a lot more time to spend on this issue than a lot of the folks in the White House, and we've done our homework on it."

Hunter's longtime associates describe him as an unpretentious lawmaker who almost surely will base his decision on what he thinks is best for those, like his son, battling insurgents in Iraq. They were not surprised last month when Hunter spoke forcefully against the bill even after Bush had phoned him to urge its passage.

Praise and criticism, flattery and warnings roll easily off Hunter's wide shoulders, they say. He is slow to anger, the associates say, and slow to change his mind unless someone presents a compelling case — even if he is opposing the president.

"He is consistently pleasant, but firm," said Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), a colleague of Hunter's for 20 years. "If you haven't convinced him that you're right and he's wrong, he'll dig in his heels." As for White House aides' efforts to overcome House resistance to the bill, Coble said, "If they don't make some kind of case that something has improved, I don't believe Duncan Hunter or Jim Sensenbrenner will cave."

Since 1981, Hunter, 56, has represented the San Diego area, a major naval base. From the outset, looking out for the military at the ground — or sea — level was synonymous with looking out for his constituents, colleagues say. Hunter sometimes irritated the Pentagon by pushing it to build and deploy more ships and submarines, said Chris Warden, his press secretary in the early 1980s.

"He was willing to go to the mat for his district," said Warden, who teaches journalism at Troy State University in Alabama. "He wasn't really concerned about the niceties of Washington." He said Hunter stunned his staff by nonchalantly taking his young son — now the Marine — to a hastily called White House meeting with President Ronald Reagan. The child delighted a surprised Reagan, Warden said.

'A classic sort of pro-defense conservative'
Over the years, Hunter rarely met a weapons system he did not like. He championed the satellite-based Strategic Defense Initiative and called for building more B-2 bombers without reducing the number of B-1 bombers. In March 2000, he and others persuaded Hastert to boost military spending by $4 billion by threatening to vote against a key budget resolution.

Two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Hunter criticized Bush's spending priorities, saying the president wanted to "conduct an aggressive Ronald Reagan foreign policy with a Jimmy Carter defense budget."

"He's a classic sort of pro-defense conservative," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a military scholar at the Brookings Institution. At least for now, in the struggle between the Pentagon and the intelligence community, Hunter seems to have plenty of admirers in the Republican-controlled House.

Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.