WASHINGTON — Advocates for the National Guard made a public plea Wednesday to congressional budget planners not to drop a proposal to elevate the profile of the Guard in the Pentagon, including making its chief a four-star general.

The move came as House and Senate negotiators are finalizing legislation governing the 2007 Defense budget, which deals with not only funding for programs and personnel but a host of policy issues as well.

When the Senate approved its version of the bill in June, it included language that would elevate the chief of the National Guard Bureau to a four-star general, make the deputy commander of U.S. northern Command a guardsman, and give the branch more oversight in its fiscal planning.

Currently, the Guard’s chief is a three-star general, and makes its budget and equipment requests through the Army and Air Force.

Retired Air Guard Brig. Gen. Stephen Koper, president of the National Guard Association of the United States, said the proposals are crucial to getting the guard the attention and influence it needs, especially in light of the new role its members have played in the war on terror.

“This is the only time the Defense Department has ever suggested that being a four-star is not that important,” he said. “Being a three-star is only important until the first four-star walks in a room.”

The Defense Department has publicly opposed the moves, testifying before Congress earlier this year that the Guard receives appropriate attention and respect under the current command structure.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said conferees on the budget bill are looking to drop the Senate language because of the Pentagon opposition. He and Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., presented petitions with more than 2,500 guardsmen’s signatures to members of the conference committee this week, asking them not to scale back that language.

“The National Guard has earned this promotion,” Bond said. “It’s time they had a real seat at the table.”

The Guard has about 400,000 current members, nearly 80,000 of whom are deployed around the war for combat operations overseas and border security operations inside the United States.

The conference committee is expected to complete its work in the next few days.

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