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Inside Politics

Hastert agrees to extension for 9/11 panel

Commission chairman pressed for more time

Tom Kean, chairman of the 9/11 panel, says the commission needs more time to complete its work.
Tom Kean, chairman of the 9/11 panel, says the commission needs more time to complete its work.

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House Speaker Dennis Hastert is opposed to granting a two-month extension for the 9/11 panel.
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President Bush agrees to give the 9/11 commission more time.
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Dennis Hastert
Tom Kean
Acts of terror

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After intense pressure from lawmakers and family members of victims, House Speaker Dennis Hastert reversed his position Friday and said he would not oppose granting a 60-day extension to the commission investigating the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

In a letter to commission Chairman Tom Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, Hastert said the commission could wait until July 26 to hand in its report -- 60 days after the original May 27 deadline.

"Thank you," commission spokesman Al Felzenberg said on hearing the news. "We now feel we can write the best possible report for the American people."

The 10-member bipartisan commission is looking into the attacks, the government responses and some U.S. intelligence before the attacks.

Hastert's letter emphasized that the commission must still dismantle as planned July 26 and may not request an extension beyond that date. He called his offer "a compromise."

But minutes after the letter was released, Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman, who had launched a bipartisan effort to push an extension through Congress, said on the Senate floor that commission leaders spoke with Hastert and expect to get an additional 30 days to dissolve the commission after turning in the report.

Kean and Hamilton will meet with Hastert early next week to work out an official agreement, said McCain, an Arizona Republican.

McCain and Lieberman, a Democrat of Connecticut, had sought Friday to tack a commission extension onto a critical highway funding bill. In the end, the bill passed the Senate without the amendment and was expected to win quick passage in the House.

Hastert's letter to Kean and Hamilton was complimentary and praised them for providing "an important service to the nation."

He wrote that he had been reluctant to support the extension because he believes "the findings and recommendations that will be contained in your report may require immediate action" to help prevent further attacks.

Earlier in the week, his spokesman, John Feehery, said the speaker also did not want the issue to become "a political football" by stretching its report further into the election year.

Kean, a Republican and former governor of New Jersey, rejected that argument Friday.

"I really don't think, with all due respect to the speaker, that politics is a reason for saying we should have a less good report for the American people," he said on CNN's "American Morning."

With a staff of nearly 70 and a budget of $14 million, the panel is known formally as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

The Bush administration initially opposed the commission's creation in November 2002, and the White House's commitment to the probe has been questioned.

But the White House said it supported the extension. Spokesman Scott McClellan dismissed as "silly" the suggestions by some Democrats that the administration was secretly backing Hastert's earlier position.

A senior administration official said the White House welcomed Hastert's decision, and added that in the past week Bush spoke with Hastert about supporting the extension. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card also called Hastert this week to reiterate the administration's position.

Conversations continued into Friday between top aides to Bush and aides to the speaker. One official familiar with the conversations said that by midday Friday "it was pretty clear" the debate over the extension "was not a winner" for the speaker or the White House.

Some Democrats and family members of 9/11 victims had called on Bush to persuade Hastert to allow the commission all the time it needed.

Sen. John Kerry, front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, did just that during a campaign stop Friday in California.

"I believe it's in the nation's interest to know the truth about 9/11," Kerry said. "Mr. President, stop stonewalling the commission and stop hiding behind excuses. Pick up the phone, call your friend Denny Hastert and tell him to let the commission finish its job so we can make America safer."

Democrats have also accused the administration of limiting or delaying access to top officials and key documents.

But McClellan, speaking to reporters Friday, said, "This administration has bent over backwards to make sure the commission has the information they need to do their job."

Kean told CNN that Bush is providing "a lot of cooperation."

"We have now seen the most secret documents in the possession of the United States government," he said. "No congressional committee has ever seen those kinds of documents."

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney said they will each meet for one hour with Kean and Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana.

In a written statement, the commission said, "We hope the president and the vice president will reconsider." Both former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore have agreed to meet with all members of the commission, the statement said.

Felzenberg told CNN that he still hoped Bush would decide to meet with the entire commission. But he also credited Bush, saying it is highly unusual for a sitting president to meet with an investigative panel empowered by Congress.

CNN's Ted Barrett, Dana Bash, Phil Hirschkorn, Joe Johns, John King and Steve Turnham contributed to this report.

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