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Hastert to block 9/11 commission extension

Speaker wants to avoid politicizing report, aide says

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Congress appears unlikely to grant a two-month extension requested by the commission investigating the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to finish its report.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert told President Bush on Wednesday he would not bring up any legislation to authorize the 60-day extension proposed by the commission and endorsed by the White House, according to Hastert spokesman John Feehery.

Feehery said the speaker, a Republican from Illinois, had two reasons.

"One, if there are recommendations that need action, we need them sooner than later," Feehery said. "Two, he does not want this to be delayed any further and become a political football in the middle of the campaign."

"What we wanted to do is get the commission report out as quickly as possible so if there are problems, we can solve those problems," Hastert later told reporters at the Capitol.

The 9/11 commission -- formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States -- is investigating all aspects of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Created by Congress in November 2002, the 10-member bipartisan panel, now with a staff of nearly 70 and a $14 million budget, has until May 27 to wrap up its work and report its findings.

Various proposals to extend the deadline -- even to January 2005, after the presidential election -- are pending in the House and Senate. The Senate was expected to take action on the 60-day extension this week.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said earlier this month that Bush would support an extension until July 26.

White House chief of staff Andy Card spoke to Hastert on Monday to reiterate Bush's support for the extension, but Hastert had made up his mind some time ago and "isn't going to budge," Feehery said.

Hastert told rank-and-file Republican lawmakers of his decision at a meeting Wednesday morning and no one publicly challenged the decision, according to Feehery and another Republican aide.

Al Felzenberg, a spokesman for the commission, said he believes the panel needs more time but that it would abide by the law.

Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste was more critical of Hastert's decision.

"I can't understand the logic of denying this short but necessary extension of time to complete our work, given the fact that the bipartisan members of the commission unanimously supported the extension, and the White House has publicly indicated it would support it," he said.

Commissioners have frequently complained that the White House and other agencies have impeded access to documents, information and officials.

"Our recommendations need to be informed by a complete factual record," said Ben-Veniste, who was a federal prosecutor in the 1970s Watergate case and Democratic counsel of the Senate Whitewater Committee in the 1990s.

"We simply must have more time to do the kind of job the American public expect of us."

Rice declines to testify

Earlier Wednesday, the commission said national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had declined its request to testify at a public hearing next month.

"We are disappointed by this decision," commission members said in a statement. "We believe the nation would be well served by the contribution she can make to public understanding of the intelligence and policy issues being examined by the commission."

Rice met privately with the panel February 7.

The statement also asked Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to reconsider their decision to be questioned only by the commission's chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, a Republican, and its vice chairman, former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat. (Full story)

The statement said Bush and Cheney "prefer not to meet with all members of the commission."

Former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore have agreed to meet privately with all members of the commission, the statement said.

"I suspect that will happen in the next few weeks," Felzenberg said.

Clinton, Gore, Bush and Cheney would be interviewed separately.

"We've already conducted more than a thousand interviews, and these are among the most important, so we are doing them last," Felzenberg said.

Rice's predecessor in the Clinton administration, Sandy Berger, has expressed a willingness to testify, according to Felzenberg.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and his predecessor, Madeleine Albright, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his predecessor, William Cohen, all have agreed to appear at the public hearing, Felzenberg said.

CNN's Phil Hirschkorn contributed to this report.

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