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White House Seen Resisting Inquiry

Politics: Sens. McCain, Lieberman blame administration for collapse of 9/11 deal.

October 12, 2002|RICHARD SIMON and GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers pushing for an independent commission to investigate government failures surrounding last year's terrorist attacks blamed the White House on Friday for scuttling an apparent agreement this week.

Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), sponsors of the legislation, said administration officials are maneuvering at the last minute to limit the panel's scope, even while claiming publicly to support a broad, unfettered investigation.

Some went further, saying the White House may be seeking to quietly scuttle the commission altogether. House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said the administration is trying to "privately move to thwart it behind the scenes."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer disputed the charges and said Congress and the administration are close to agreement on creating the 10-member panel. He sought to shift blame onto lawmakers for refusing to give ground on several sticking points.

"The president would be very disappointed if the Congress allowed these issues to keep the agreement from happening," Fleischer said. President Bush, he added, "thinks it can and should be done."

Relatives of victims of the attacks lambasted the White House early in the day, accusing the administration of undermining the deal. But their main spokesman, Stephen Push, whose wife was aboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, later said he believes the White House is negotiating in good faith.

Creating an independent commission, patterned after those that investigated the Pearl Harbor attack and President John F. Kennedy's assassination, appeared to be a sure thing after the White House recently dropped its opposition to the idea.

The Senate last month overwhelmingly voted to create the panel and give it broad authority to investigate a range of issues, from immigration policies to aviation security. The House earlier approved a commission that would be more limited in scope.

House and Senate negotiators had announced an accord on their differences Thursday afternoon, but it fell apart by the end of the day when Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, raised last-minute objections.

Lieberman and McCain on Friday blamed the White House for the unraveling. Goss is seen by many on Capitol Hill as the White House's surrogate in negotiations on the commission.

Goss said Thursday that he wasn't satisfied that the panel would have authority to investigate all branches of government, including Congress.

But Senate aides involved in the talks said Goss had not raised that issue before, and that he left the bargaining table Thursday citing objections "above my pay grade," interpreted by some as a reference to the White House.

The administration is concerned that under the proposal, commission members appointed by one party would have the power to issue subpoenas. "One-political-party subpoenas lead to paralysis and politics," Fleischer said.

Under the congressional plan, the 10 commission appointments would be equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. Subpoenas could be issued with support from five members, meaning the decision could be determined by a bloc vote by members of either party.

The White House also has been pressing for a one-year deadline for the commission's work, while the deal struck by lawmakers calls for a two-year timetable.

Additionally, the administration wants to prevent the commission from being able to look into the government's actions immediately after the terrorist attacks, according to a congressional staffer.

Lieberman and McCain vowed to resist any White House effort to limit the panel's scope and said they hold out hope that the proposal could clear Congress in its closing days.

"Every bureaucracy ... is scared to death of an investigation," McCain said. "We all know ... that numerous mistakes were made."

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