San Francisco Chronicle
Washington -- House Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, urged President Bush Tuesday to call a rare special session of Congress to swiftly pass the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations for reorganizing the country's intelligence operations.
Congress is on a six-week vacation until after Labor Day. But more than 100 of the House's 205 Democrats appeared Tuesday in the Capitol for a daylong session to hear from the bipartisan commission's two leaders, discuss a draft bill that Pelosi said embodies the panel's ideas and hear their leaders criticize majority Republicans for allegedly dragging their feet on enacting the proposals.
Pelosi originally called for Tuesday's caucus meeting at the Democratic convention last month when it seemed Bush was reluctant to move on the commission's recommendations. But since then, the president may have stolen some of her election-year thunder by endorsing the commission's idea of a national intelligence director and, on Tuesday, nominating Rep. Porter Goss, R- Fla., the House Intelligence Committee chairman, as the new CIA director.
Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., has shunned Pelosi's call to summon the House back into session, but he and other Republican House leaders have scheduled a vigorous series of hearings by six committees this month to consider aspects of the 9/11 commission's report. No specific legislation has yet been introduced, although proposals are expected by the time Congress returns in September.
The Senate, which also is in recess, is holding hearings as well and faces a deadline of Oct. 1, set by leaders, for legislation to reach the floor. But Pelosi and other Democratic House leaders said there is no time to wait, with Washington and New York City under an elevated terrorism alert and fears that Islamic terrorists may strike the country before the Nov. 2 election. "The question should be asked of Republicans: How can you take a six-week vacation from Congress?'' Pelosi asked at a press conference. "We will not allow this report to gather dust or to be shredded.''
She said Congress should try to have legislation passed by Sept. 11, the third anniversary of the terrorist attacks, and just a week after the end of the Republican National Convention in New York. Among other things, her draft bill calls for a national intelligence director, a national counterterrorism center to synthesize shared information and an end to the secrecy surrounding the intelligence budget, which is estimated at $40 billion a year.
In reaction to Pelosi's call for a special session, White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said Bush has already moved on many of the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations and has taken many other steps in the past three years to improve homeland security and intelligence collection and analysis.
"Congress is holding hearings. We welcome her (Pelosi) to this discussion on how to move forward in a quick and responsible way,'' he said.
House Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said Pelosi was playing election-year politics.
"The day after the commission announced their recommendations, the House announced its intention to hold over 15 serious and substantive hearings this month. This commitment may be disappointing to some Beltway blowhards, but it's reassuring to everyone else,'' DeLay said.
But Pelosi, whose deputies pointed out that Bush initially opposed creating the Department of Homeland Security as well as the commission before giving in to pressure, said Republican delays were political.
"The question is not whether we should have a special session. The question is, why hasn't it happened in the last three years,'' she said.
Pelosi's deputy, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said it will be difficult for Congress to enact intelligence reforms and pending appropriations bills before adjourning in October to allow members to campaign for re-election.
Some observers suggest a lame-duck session is possible after the Nov. 2 election.