WASHINGTON – Lawmakers and the White House reached a deal Thursday on creating an independent commission to investigate why the government failed to foil the Sept. 11 attacks. The House quickly passed the measure as one of its last acts before adjourning for the year.
A deadlock on the panel's structure was broken in talks between White House officials and the two main Senate advocates of the commission, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.
The House approved the commission early Friday as part of a bill authorizing intelligence activities in the 2003 budget year, which began Oct. 1. The commission dispute had stalled that legislation. It would have to be approved by the Senate before going to the White House for President Bush's signature.
"Finally we will get a clear, clean picture of what government agencies failed, how they failed, and why," Lieberman said.
Most details of the intelligence agency bill were classified, including the spending level. But estimates put the funding at about $35 billion for the year, a significant increase from the previous year. It passed 366-3.
Both the House and Senate had voted to create different versions of the commission. The White House, which initially opposed the idea, later said it would support such a panel.
Negotiations bogged down over its structure and subpoena power, with lawmakers and the White House accusing each other of trying to manipulate it for political purposes.
With the congressional session drawing to an end, the White House told lawmakers that President Bush was poised to create a panel by executive order if a legislative compromise could not be reached, congressional and administration officials said.
The White House won some key points it was seeking. The 10-member panel would be headed by a presidential appointee. Congressional advocates of the commission wanted two co-chairs, one appointed by the Democrats.
In another provision sought by the White House, six votes would be needed to issue a subpoena. With the panel evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, lawmakers wanted a five-vote minimum for a subpoena, to prevent one party from blocking the other's subpoena requests.
But in an informal agreement that clinched the deal, negotiators agreed that one Republican appointee would be subject to the approval of McCain and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., another strong supporter of the commission and the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The commission would have an 18-month mandate, a clean compromise between the two years sought by lawmakers and 12 months sought by the White House.
Lieberman spokeswoman Leslie Phillips hailed the agreement.
"We were in danger of not having a commission. Now we have a commission," she said.
But Stephen Push of Great Falls, Va., a leader of a group of victims' relatives, said, "This is not the commission we had in mind." He said it would be more promising if McCain controlled a GOP seat.
"The real test of whether this commission is truly independent is the integrity of the people picked to serve on it," said Push, whose wife, Lisa Raines, was aboard the plane that hit the Pentagon.
The panel would follow up the work of an investigation by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, which are investigating intelligence failures leading up to the attacks, and would go into other issues, such as aviation security and immigration.
A leading House advocate of the committee, Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., said the proposed commission is "not still completely independent or as powerful as it should be, but it's slowly moving in the right direction."
The House recessed for about an hour Thursday evening partly because aides could not find the official copy of the intelligence bill.
Amid jokes about disappearing ink and the bill being a classified document that lawmakers lacked the clearance to see, the papers were finally located at Intelligence committee offices. Perhaps appropriately, aides said they were not sure whether it was the House or Senate Intelligence committee offices.