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Pelosi Calls Caucus on 9/11

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday told Democratic lawmakers they would be summoned back to Capitol Hill Aug. 10 to meet with the 9/11 commission, the latest move in the escalating showdown between the two parties over how best to combat terrorism.

The call to bring Members back to Washington to talk with commissioners about implementing their recommendations comes just as Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) proposed extending the life of the 9/11 commission for another 18 months to monitor progress on its ideas and press to put them in place.

It also follows an announcement by House Republican leaders and Homeland Security Chairman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) that a series of hearings on the matter would be held starting Aug. 16. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) initially suggested it would be difficult to move quickly on the panel’s findings in the limited time left in this session, but promised the hearings after Republican leaders encountered complaints from Democrats and other critics.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee also is scheduled to meet Friday on the panel’s work, with plans to report its findings to Senate leadership by Oct. 1.

Democrats have been on the offensive on the homeland security issue in recent months as part of the party’s aggressive push to convince voters this fall that it is committed to defeating terrorism and protecting the American public from future threats. Polls have consistently shown Republicans enjoying a solid advantage in being seen as the party most trusted on defense and security issues.

Democrats have been pushing even harder since the 9/11 report came out. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, canceled his plans to attend the Boston convention, citing the need to remain in Washington and further examine all reform proposals including the recent recommendations from the 9/11 panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

Pelosi, in a private Member meeting Tuesday morning, said House Democratic leaders felt it was important to break from their six-week August recess to speak to the panel directly about its suggestions for improving U.S. security and begin working on putting those ideas to work. The bipartisan 9/11 commission released its findings last week.

“Democrats are moving quickly but carefully to give the commission’s recommendations the consideration they deserve,” Pelosi said, adding: “Commission leaders have challenged the president and the Congress to treat the unanimous, bipartisan report with the same sense of urgency that the commission brought to its task.

“Democrats will spare no effort in meeting that challenge.”

Late last week, Pelosi wrote a letter to Hastert asking him to reconvene the House in August to review the commission’s recommendations, and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said when it appeared the Republican leadership wasn’t ready to act immediately on the recommendations, Democratic leaders decided to move ahead on their own. Even though Republicans have since announced plans to hold hearings, the Minority Whip said Democrats feel equally pressed to take action.

“The leader and I both thought that since this is such a high priority and such an important issue, that we should get as many Members back [to the Hill] as can come back,” Hoyer said. “We want to figure out what we can take up in the immediate term, medium term and next year and what we can implement.”

Several Democratic House aides said their leaders decided on the special caucus before Republicans announced hearings on the matter. Those sources said the Democratic leaders were concerned the recommendations would sit for six weeks, and the GOP leadership would then block attempts to move forward on any of them this year.

John Feehery, spokesman for Hastert, said the House has been moving ahead, both on the staff and committee level, and in a bipartisan fashion. He said by calling a caucus, Democrats are “playing politics” with the commission’s report and its findings.

“We’re going to have hearings throughout August to find ways to implement the recommendations in a responsible fashion,” Feehery said. “We’re not going to play politics. They are dreaming up all this stuff after looking at the polls that show Kerry is way behind [Bush] when it comes to security issues.”

The 9/11 commission’s final report included more than 40 recommendations, such as the appointment of a national intelligence director, creation of a national counterterrorism center and improvements in Congressional oversight of the intelligence community.

Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee, said it is critical Members “take advantage of the momentum that this bipartisan 9/11 Commission has given us on the recommendations to improve this nation’s security.” Turner gave House Democrats an analysis of the recommendations Tuesday morning.

John Bresnahan and Mark Preston contributed to this report.

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