The election-season fight over confronting terrorism escalated Tuesday, as John F. Kerry called for the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission to be extended by 18 months to help implement its proposed intelligence reforms and pressure the White House and Congress for fast action.
President Bush did not respond to Kerry's suggestion, but congressional Democrats and Republicans quickened their pace of reacting to the five-day-old report. A Senate committee scheduled a hearing for Friday rather than next week, and House Democrats announced plans to gather Aug. 10 -- ordinarily the heart of summer vacation -- to discuss the report.
Although some leaders of both parties cautioned against rushing to implement recommendations, others said the public demands prompt response to recommendations intended to avert terrorist attacks.
The 567-page report, which tops bestseller lists and soon will come out in hardcover, continues to reshape the political debate 14 weeks before the Nov. 2 election.
Many Democrats believe Bush and congressional Republicans erred by initially seeming reluctant to embrace its recommendations. Within two days, Bush suggested he would enact by executive order some of the recommendations, but Kerry upped the ante on Tuesday by calling for keeping the commission alive.
Two days before he accepts the Democratic presidential nomination, Kerry changed a campaign speech here to propose expanding the life and mandate of the commission, which is scheduled to dissolve Aug. 26. He said the commission should issue a report every six months detailing whether federal officials are moving swiftly enough to tighten homeland security, reorganize intelligence agencies and reshape the global alliance to fight terrorists.
"We understand the threat," Kerry told supporters. "We have a blueprint for action. We have the strength as a nation to do what must be done. The only thing we don't have is time."
Kerry previously endorsed the commission's long list of proposed changes, including the creation of a department-level intelligence director and a reorganization of the terrorism-fighting apparatus. "I hope the president will now take the necessary steps," he said.
Bush, who originally opposed creating the commission, has not embraced the full set of recommendations. Vacationing at his Texas ranch while Democrats are convening in Boston, Bush met Monday by videoconference with his national security advisers to determine which recommendations could and should be made by executive order or similar means that do not require congressional approval.
Administration officials said Tuesday that Attorney General John D. Ashcroft is postponing a trip to Mexico to work on the commission's recommendations.
The White House did not offer any public reaction to Kerry's proposal, but privately an official indicated Bush would not accept the idea. In two appearances Tuesday in Southern California, Vice President Cheney played up the commission's warnings about continued terrorist threats and said this is a bad time to change the nation's leadership.
Cheney, speaking at a luncheon for a congressional candidate in Bakersfield, said that the terrorist enemy "in the words of the 9/11 commission report, issued just last week, is 'sophisticated, patient, disciplined, and lethal.' "
The panel's boldest recommendations -- creating a national director of intelligence and establishing a national counterterrorism center -- would require congressional action, as would the call to revamp Congress's oversight of intelligence gathering. Extending the commission's life presumably would require congressional and presidential approval.
The commission's leaders, former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean (R) and former representative Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), have advocated keeping the panel active and vowed to lobby to have its recommendations enacted.
Congress, as is customary, was scheduled to be in recess for all of August. But the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee will start hearings Friday, featuring Kean and Hamilton. The House's homeland security committee will hold hearings Aug. 16.
For the rest of this year, Congress is scheduled to be in full session for only four weeks in September. Lawmakers said Tuesday it is unclear whether they will try to enact major recommendations during that month or during a session that might extend into October.
Democrats, while sensing a chance to gain political ground on the issue of national security, do not agree on how rapidly to proceed. Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.) said Congress should act on the panel's suggestions before the election. But Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) urged more caution. "The report shouldn't be used as a political instrument," he told Washington Post reporters and editors Tuesday. As for passing legislation before the election, he said, "My sense is that might be a bit ambitious."
In a conference call organized Tuesday by the Kerry campaign, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.) -- the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel -- said Bush is "beginning to act," but not quickly enough.
Just before the report was issued Thursday, Kerry held a news conference to announce his support for a Cabinet-level intelligence chief and many other reforms the commission had signaled it would propose. Rockefeller said Kerry's plan to empower the commission to effectively lobby for its recommendations would make sure "pressure is kept as high intensity of heat as possible" on Bush and Congress.
At Tuesday's event in Norfolk, with the USS Wisconsin docked behind him, Kerry said, "Backpedaling is not something America can afford."
Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, helped Kerry devise the new proposal, said David Wade, a Kerry spokesman. Harman flew into Norfolk to introduce Kerry.
To implement the proposed changes, Harman said, GOP congressional leaders "need the call from the White House, and that call has not come. If it doesn't come, this election, I predict will be a referendum on the administration's failure to admit mistakes, failure to fix these mistakes or step aside."
In discussing security issues with Post editors and reporters Tuesday, Kerry campaign adviser Rand Beers took issue with the way the Bush administration has defined the effort to root out Islamic terrorists.
"The war is not against terrorism, which is a tactic, but in fact what we are talking about is a struggle against fundamentalist, Islamic jihahidists . . . who are bent on destroying the United States," he said.
Beers, former counterterrorism director in the Bush White House, said the administration has overemphasized military action at the expense of economic, diplomatic, political and other efforts in going after jihadists.
"That's why I chose to use the word 'struggle' instead of 'war' to actually define how I personally view this particular problem," he added. As part of the Republican argument that Kerry cannot be trusted to handle intelligence or terrorism, the party on Wednesday will e-mail 8 million supporters a 12-minute video compiling clips from debates and interviews showing Kerry's evolving rhetoric on Iraq. The video uses squares on a calendar to frame the clips of Kerry's varying arguments, portraying him as becoming less hawkish as the antiwar stance of former Vermont governor Howard Dean helped him gain momentum for the Democratic nomination last year.
Babington reported from Boston. Staff writers Mike Allen in Crawford, Tex.; Dan Eggen in Washington; and Lois Romano in Boston contributed to this report.