WASHINGTON — Sweeping reform recommendations by the Sept. 11 commission began winning supporters Friday, but the proposals face such a steep climb during a bitter political season that even ardent backers are doubtful about their prospects.
Commission members acknowledge there is only a slim chance that their core recommendations -- creating a national intelligence czar, building an overarching counterterrorism center and reorganizing congressional committees -- can be adopted in the midst of a presidential campaign.
But they served notice that they intend to closely monitor Washington's response and make it difficult for politicians of either party to put off dealing with the finding that the nation's intelligence system is dangerously deficient.
"We don't want this forgotten," Chairman Thomas H. Kean said Friday. "We believe that if these recommendations are delayed for too long a period of time, the country ... really will not be safe."
The pressure from panel members seemed to be producing results Friday. Democrats quickly lined up to say the commission's recommendations should take priority over virtually every other piece of legislative business.
"It could certainly be the legislative priority when we return after Labor Day," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. "If we clear the decks to do it, we'll get it done."Just before the Senate adjourned Thursday night for a six-week summer recess, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) joined with Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to set an Oct. 1 deadline for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee to evaluate the commission's recommendations and propose ways to implement them.
By day's end Friday, the House Republican leadership -- which on Thursday had claimed that it would take months of hearings to study the report -- had issued a statement saying all committees with jurisdiction will hold hearings in August and have legislation ready for consideration by September.
But commissioners cautioned that the road ahead is filled with political pitfalls.
"Come talk to us in a couple of months, when the conventions are over and the campaigns are going," Kean, the former Republican governor or New Jersey, told reporters Friday.
By then, he said, he will have a better sense of whether the initial burst of energy will translate into action this year, as commission members clearly hope.
The panel's main recommendations, if enacted, would require some agencies to relinquish staff, budget and turf to others -- the sort of political bloodletting, acknowledged commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, that requires enormous political will.
"Whenever you begin to reorganize ... you immediately confront the question of power, and power is what this town is all about," said Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana.
"The status quo always has an army," Kean added. "To besiege that castle is very, very difficult."
But if it takes the political drama of calling a special session of Congress this year to break down resistance and spur action, Kean said, then he "absolutely" favors such a move.
In the meantime, Kean and the nine other commissioners intend to fan out across the country to speak in support of their findings and regroup a year from now to assess whether their efforts paid off.
"Time is not on our side," Kean said. "My own belief -- and I think it is the commission's -- is that the sooner the recommendations are put in place, the safer the citizens of this country will be."
The commission has another month of official life to wrap up its work and send its millions of pages of documents, notes and transcripts to the National Archives.
After that, Kean and Hamilton said, they will be looking for ways to keep traveling and speaking out -- even if that means spending their own money to do so.
Although some recommendations can be enacted by presidential order and others carried out by the agencies examined by the commission, the most important proposals would require time-consuming legislation.
Although an already partisan Congress has grown even more paralyzed by political rivalry as national elections approach, the Republican leadership insisted Friday that it is ready and willing to act.
In a joint statement, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said they had directed all committees with jurisdiction "to examine the commission's recommendations, begin hearings in August and report back to us with recommendation for specific legislation in September, including specific proposals we will consider before Congress adjourns."
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, announced that her panel will hold hearings the first week in August.
"No longer is it going to be a sleepy, quiet August around here," Collins said.