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GOP Lawmakers Stall Bill on Independent 9/11 Inquiry

Terror: House member says investigation's scope is still unresolved. Some question whether White House is behind last-minute opposition.

October 11, 2002|GREG MILLER and RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Legislation to create an independent commission to investigate government failures leading up to last year's terrorist attacks snagged Thursday, jeopardizing a measure that relatives of those killed have lobbied for extensively.

Just hours after lawmakers held a news conference announcing that they had reached agreement on the commission, the deal ran into unexpected opposition from House Republicans, led by Rep. Porter J. Goss of Florida.

Goss, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said late Thursday that legislators had yet to resolve whether the commission would have the authority to examine all branches of government, including Congress.

Goss said he favors giving the commission a broad mandate and that he believed the issue could be resolved quickly. "Essentially, what we need is a little more time," he said.

But several congressional sources said Goss never raised the issue of scope when lawmakers were ironing out their agreement in meetings Thursday. One Senate aide said the language of the bill already allows for the panel to probe all branches of government.

Some wondered whether Goss, who has close ties to the White House, came under last-minute administration pressure to delay it. Goss dismissed that suggestion.

The White House endorsed the commission recently after opposing it for much of the year, but it has raised concerns about the panel's scope and structure.

Under the initial agreement reached Thursday, the panel would have 10 members, run by two co-chairs--one appointed by the White House and another appointed by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). The White House had sought to have a single chairman that it would appoint.

The panel would also have two years to operate, which is twice as long as the White House wanted.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), a proponent of the commission, said through a spokesman that he was "surprised and disappointed" when he heard that the deal had stalled.

Proponents of the panel remained hopeful that it could still be approved, but time is running out on the congressional session.

Before the deal unraveled, Scott McClellan, deputy press secretary at the White House, said the administration was "pleased" with the initial deal. But he added that White House officials wanted to study the details before signing on.

The commission would examine such issues as U.S. intelligence gathering, commercial aviation, immigration and the flow of assets to terrorist organizations.

The White House initially opposed the creation of a commission, saying that it would duplicate congressional inquiries and that it could distract intelligence officials working to prevent future attacks.

But President Bush relented after emotional appeals by relatives of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Even so, White House aides in discussions with lawmakers and their staff in recent weeks continued to oppose certain provisions--demanding, for instance, that a majority vote by the commission be required to issue subpoenas. The agreement unveiled Thursday would allow subpoenas with just five votes.

The Senate in late September overwhelmingly passed a bill to create the commission. The House favored a panel with a narrower focus, thus requiring a conference committee to resolve the differences. It was those talks that snagged late Thursday.

The negotiations on the commission came as the two congressional intelligence committees are winding down their own inquiries into the terrorist attacks.

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Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this report.

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