WASHINGTON - House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert reversed himself yesterday and announced that he would accept a 60-day extension of the deadline for a federal commission to complete its investigation of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The decision appeared to clear the way for an extension until midsummer.
The 10-member bipartisan commission had warned that if it was required to meet its original, congressionally mandated deadline to issue a final report on May 27, the panel would have to curtail its investigation and cancel several public hearings.
"We are overjoyed by the speaker's decision," said Al Felzenberg, the commission's spokesman.
Hastert's announcement came after two senators who supported the extension - Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut - threatened to hold up a popular highway bill unless the House guaranteed passage of legislation to extend the commission's deadline.
Hastert had said he was determined to block any extension, alleging that members of the panel were leaking sensitive information from the investigation to news organizations and that any delay in the final report would turn the panel's findings into a "political football" in an election year.
The speaker, an Illinois Republican, also said the commission's findings were potentially so valuable that they should not be delayed.
Hastert described his offer as a "compromise" because it allows the commission's final report to be delayed until midsummer but would still require the panel to abide by an existing July 26 deadline to complete its administrative work and close its doors.
While that could pose extraordinary logistical problems for the commission, since it could be compelled to issue its final report and shut down its offices on the same day, the commission seemed eager to accept Hastert's offer.
"Our main concern was always to get the additional 60 days to prepare the best possible report," said Felzenberg, the spokesman.
In other encouraging news for the commission, panel members said yesterday that the White House had agreed in recent days to allow the panel chairman, Thomas H. Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, and Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic House member from Indiana, to have access to much more information contained in daily intelligence briefings that reached the Oval Office in the months and years before the Sept. 11 attacks.