- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 8, 2004

Democrats, with recent election history in mind, are determined to keep the September 11 commission report from being used against them.

They remember the way President Bush and Republicans used a legislative battle over creation of the Department of Homeland Security to unseat two Democrats and win back control of the Senate in the midterm elections two years ago.

“No one is going to soon forget what happened in 2002,” says Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, tasked with electing Democrats. “In 2002, George Bush had the bully pulpit to himself. This is a presidential election year. Senator [John] Kerry is going to have a lot to say about the president’s record, or lack of record, on the 9/11 intelligence issues.”

The report by the September 11 commission, released little more than two weeks ago, is fuel for a big policy and political fight as Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, head toward November’s elections. The scenario echoes the tangle over proposals for the Cabinet-level domestic security department prior to the 2002 congressional elections.

After initially opposing formation of the September 11 commission, then cooperating with its probe and cautious praising its lengthy report, Mr. Bush embraced the findings and proposed his own set of national-security reforms. They are similar to — but not exactly — what the commission recommended.

Shades of 2002, when, after months of opposing Democrats’ calls for a homeland security agency, the president did an about-face in June and proposed his own version.

When legislation to create the department bogged down in the Senate over Democrats’ insistence on union protections for employees facing transfer or termination, Mr. Bush hit the campaign trail, arguing that the move underminded his flexibiility and national security. His use of the issue, and Republican attack ads, helped the party unseat Sen. Max Cleland in Georgia and Sen. Jean Carnahan in Missouri.

Now, House Democrats are preparing to turn the tables on Republicans in the wake of the September 11 panel’s report. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last week released a statement accusing Republicans of forming a blockade to passage of reforms.

“Republican leaders are gearing up to be a huge impediment to passing needed reforms that could help prevent future terrorist attacks,” the DCCC statement charged.

Democratic leaders embraced the commission’s recommendations, calling for them to be adopted almost in total. Mr. Kerry backed all of the recommendations without digesting the entire report.

Mr. Bush and fellow Republicans who had taken a more cautious approach then called for Congress to try to pass something this year.

Staying a step ahead, Mr. Kerry said that if the president were serious he would call Congress back to work this month. He also said the panel itself should be extended another 18 months to make sure the reform process worked.

John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, insists that Mr. Bush and the Republicans aren’t vulnerable on the issue.

“I see only upside for us, because I don’t think people trust Democrats on this,” he says.

Republicans will pass a bill this year that will address at least some of the commission’s recommendations, Mr. Feehery says.

“We’re going to pass pieces of legislation that will be endorsed by the commission members, and it will be something that will make the country safer,” he says.

Both chambers of Congress did convene a series of rare August meetings to hear from commission members and examine their recommendations.

House Democrats will hold a caucus meeting this week to highlight the report and discuss how to address the recommendations.

But DCCC Chairman Robert T. Matsui, California Democrat, says Democrats do not believe the commission should become a partisan pawn.

“I would hope they wouldn’t, because certainly we don’t intend to make a political issue out of this,” Mr. Matsui says.

“I think it would be counterproductive if this legislation or this proposal was treated politically. The goal will have to be to get this done.”

If the panel’s recommendations do become a purely political issue, though, Mr. Woodhouse of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee predicts Republicans such as Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri will be targeted for earlier criticism of the commission — and for what the Democrats say is the Republicans’ go-slow approach now.

The faster reform can happen, the better, Mr. Bond says.

“This is a complicated process,” he adds. “Congress needs to get it done right the first time around, and that may take time, but we simply can’t afford to make mistakes.”

Democrats and Republicans argue that while there are similarities, this year’s fight is different from the tustle over national security in 2002.

Unlike the fight over union rights, this battle is shaping up to be over the powers bestowed to a new position of national intelligence director. The 10-member commission called for the official to have broad budgetary and hiring authority; Democrats back this approach, but the White House has been reluctant to endorse it.

The politicians, though, may be far ahead of the public. A Gallup-CNN-USA Today poll released last week found that 52 percent of those surveyed hadn’t heard enough about the September 11 panel’s report to have an opinion.

Asked about extending the commission, as Mr. Kerry and other Democrats have called for, the poll found that 56 percent supported that. But 64 percent also said Congress and the president should “take the time they feel they need” before passing legislation.

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