- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

The White House said yesterday that it wanted more time for the September 11 commission to finish its work, reversing an earlier position and raising the prospect that the panel’s report would be published just weeks before the party conventions.

“We want to make sure the commission has time to do a thorough job,” White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said. “We hope Congress will now act quickly to extend [the panels] deadline by the 60 days it has asked for.”

She said the White House turnaround followed discussions with commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean.

But House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, remains opposed to any change in the commission’s schedule, and has the power to block the extension.

According to its establishing law, the panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, must report by May 27. Any change has to pass both chambers of Congress and, as speaker, Mr. Hastert has the power to determine whether such a measure is brought to the floor of the House for a vote.

“The speaker continues to believe that the commission should finish on time,” Hastert spokesman John Feehery said. But he added that his boss had not spoken with the White House.

“A phone call from the president can make a lot of difference,” he said.

Mr. Kean requested the extension last week. He said staff had told him that they needed two more months — until July 26 — to do “the best report they can.”

Mr. Kean said he was “very pleased” by the White House position. “It’s what we asked for,” he said.

The panel chairman said he hoped that Mr. Hastert would change his mind.

“I am an admirer of the speaker,” Mr. Kean said, adding that he would visit Mr. Hastert personally, “if he wants me to, and if it will help.”

Relatives of victims of the September 11 attacks began to campaign in support of the extension last week — after the White House said it opposed any postponement of the commission’s report.

Word of the administration’s about-face came during a Capitol Hill press conference at which the September 11 families and their congressional supporters were introducing a bill to prolong the commission’s life.

A reporter burst into the room with the news from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

“That press conference had really quick results,” Rep. Vito J. Fossella, bill sponsor, joked afterward.

The New York Republican’s bill — like an identical one in the Senate — enjoys bipartisan support and is backed by the families. Both seek an extension of the commission’s life until Jan 10.

Mr. Fossella said the families had asked for a January deadline because they were worried that if the report was published at the end of July it would be overshadowed by, or sucked into, the political maelstrom of a hard-fought election.

“They’re right to be concerned,” Mr. Fossella said. “We cannot allow this report to become a political football, or the families to become pawns.”

But with the effectiveness of U.S. intelligence and the question of how to make the country safer from terrorism likely to be front and center in the campaign, Mr. Fossella added, it was “inevitable that there will be those who will seek to exploit this issue for political gain.”

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