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House, Senate diverge on 9/11 response

As clock winds down on 108th Congress, lawmakers focus on 9/11 commission goals.

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With most of its legislative work unfinished, the closing days of the 108th Congress are coming down to a quick march to get some form of the 9/11 commission recommendations into law.

House GOP leaders, who once opposed using the commission's final report as the template for reform, have moved closer to it in recent weeks. "It is a much more comprehensive enacting of the 9/11 commission recommendations than anyone would have thought possible a few weeks ago," says Rep. Chris Cox (R) of California, chair of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, who credits the commission with "a good job in public diplomacy."

But the House version still differs from the Senate's on issues from new law enforcement authorities to whether the Pentagon should be forced to accept a lower profile in intelligence decisions - setting up turf battles among lawmakers.

At a briefing to release their bill on Friday, GOP leaders carried fresh copies of the 9/11 commission report. In a draft table of contents, released later in the day, the original title, "Terror Prevention and Responses Act," had been replaced with "The 9/11 Commission Implementation Act."

It's a sign of the immense prestige of the 9/11 commission, now disbanded, and the power of national security as a public concern in an election year. Like the 2002 vote that created the Department of Homeland Security, this debate occurs just before a national election, with Americans paying attention to what happens in Washington.

For both parties, the upcoming decisions on everything from a new national-intelligence czar to broad new powers for law enforcement carry huge political risks. Even the hint of appearing hesitant on any reform that might make Americans safer could be fatal at the polls, as Democrats learned when they lost control of the Senate in 2002.

The risks of rushing

But a range of security experts say that a rush to legislate can also be risky. Last week, a bipartisan group of former Defense and Intelligence officials, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, called for more time. "We are concerned that the reforms of the magnitudes that are being talked about, and with the impact that they will have on the conduct of intelligence and on the national security machinery, should not be rushed through in the last week of a congressional session, in the middle of a presidential election campaign," he told a Senate panel.


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