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Hastert firm on Sept. 11 inquiry

Says he'll prevent deadline extension

WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Dennis Hastert has hardened his opposition to extending the deadline for the independent commission studying the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, even as the panel's leaders pleaded yesterday for more time to complete their work.

Hastert, an Illinois Republican, told Republican lawmakers in a meeting yesterday that he would not bring up any legislation to grant the commission extra time, said spokesman John Feehery. Hastert rejected a personal plea from White House chief of staff Andrew Card on the extension Monday, Feehery said.

"He still doesn't feel the commission needs any extra time and should complete its report as soon as possible," Feehery said, adding that a later deadline also would make the commission "a political issue" during the presidential campaign.

Hastert's stance casts serious doubt on the commission's efforts to secure a 60-day extension of its May 27 deadline, which the panel contends it needs to produce a complete report and avoid cutting back on public hearings. Legislation granting the panel extra time is moving ahead in the Senate, where majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee has indicated his support. After opposing the idea, President Bush reversed himself earlier this month and agreed to support an extension.

In another blow to the commission, officials also announced yesterday that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had rejected an invitation to testify publicly in front of the panel. Several other senior Bush and Clinton administration officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, have agreed to appear at a public hearing in late March.

The commission has already interviewed Rice privately, and she is expected to be asked to return for more questioning behind closed doors. But Commission chairman Thomas Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, said in an interview that he was disappointed by Rice's refusal to testify publicly.

"There's no question that we have the votes in the House, and my hope is that people of good will, including the speaker, will understand that the American people deserve the best report they can get from us," Kean said.

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