The chairman of the Sept. 11 commission warned yesterday that Congress is moving too slowly to negotiate a compromise intelligence reform package, and relatives of Sept. 11 victims said a White House official raised doubts about the fate of the legislation.
Alberto R. Gonzales, the chief White House counsel, told several relatives of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks yesterday that the administration is not sure an intelligence bill can be signed into law before the end of the year, according to one relative who attended the closed-door meeting.
Mary Fetchet said Gonzales also told her and two other representatives of Sept. 11 victims that there were serious problems in the two competing bills that were passed by the House and Senate.
"So much time and energy has been devoted to this and now they're pushing back the time frame," said Fetchet, a member of the 9/11 Family Steering Committee whose son, Brad, was killed in the attacks. "That horrifies me that there isn't a sense of urgency in moving this forward. . . . This is not about tax reform or something like that; this is about saving American lives."
White House spokeswoman Erin Healy disputed Fetchet's account, however, saying that Gonzales sought to reassure the families that the administration would do everything it could to get legislation passed.
"He wants Congress to work quickly to get legislation to the president, and that has been our position all along," Healy said.
Thomas H. Kean (R), chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, said in an interview that the House and Senate are moving too slowly to negotiate a compromise between competing reform proposals, adding that the pace could jeopardize the whole effort.
"If we lose the momentum, we may lose the whole thing," Kean said. "We need a bill, and we need it soon."
Kean said he believes President Bush "wants a strong bill" and said he has been told the president will be "active" in pushing for an agreement. "He's not for putting it off," Kean added.
Kean's warning and the cautionary message from Gonzales underscore rising doubts on Capitol Hill that the House and Senate can agree on how to restructure the nation's intelligence services before the Nov. 2 election.
Both houses have passed bills creating a national intelligence director and a counterterrorism center -- as advocated by the Sept. 11 commission -- but the legislation differs significantly in key areas, including the budgetary power of the new director. In addition, the House included law enforcement and immigration provisions that have drawn considerable opposition in the Senate.
The two houses have appointed negotiators to work out a compromise on the measure, but no meeting date has been scheduled, despite pressure from key senators for swift action so Congress can enact the legislation before the election.
The House recessed on Saturday and the Senate on Monday, but Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has said Congress would return to act on the legislation if agreement can be reached in time.
Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.