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Informal discussions begin on 9/11-style commission on coronavirus response

The "preliminary" talks about a look at the response are taking place mostly among Democrats for now.
A body wrapped in plastic is loaded onto a refrigerated container truck used as a temporary morgue by medical workers at Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York on Tuesday, March 31, 2020.John Minchillo / AP

WASHINGTON — Informal discussions have begun on Capitol Hill about the possibility of creating a panel to scrutinize the Trump administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic that would be modeled on the commission that investigated the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to four people familiar with the discussions.

They described the discussions as "very preliminary" and involving mostly congressional Democrats.

One option could be a plan to review the administration's response in the annual National Defense Authorization Act, two of the people said.

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The review would focus on lessons learned about the government's preparedness and what the administration could have handled better, they said, adding that the goal would be to come up with a better plan to handle a pandemic in the future.

A wholesale examination of the administration's response could gain traction with the passing of a gruesome milestone Tuesday, when the number of deaths in the U.S. from the coronavirus surpassed the number of people who were killed on 9/11.

But the formation of any commission, or possible congressional investigations, wouldn't happen until after the country is through the crisis, the people familiar with the discussions said. Some lawmakers have suggested putting off any investigation until after November's presidential election, they said.

The bipartisan 9/11 Commission was created by legislation signed into law by President George W. Bush to review the government's preparedness for and response to the 2001 terrorist attacks. It was formed a year after the attacks and two years before Bush was up for re-election.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff says he is working on a draft of a bill to form a commission.

President Donald Trump has defended his administration's handling of the pandemic, and his White House has repeatedly bucked congressional oversight.

The people familiar with the discussions said expectations are low for a review that has broad bipartisan support in Congress and the backing of the White House, particularly in an election year.

"I don't know that you would get administration buy-in for something like that," a senior administration official said. "Then, if the Democrats do one, it's all one-sided."

Any plan for a review that was tucked into the National Defense Authorization Act would require support from Senate Republicans and the White House.

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Separately, Congress wrote a number of accountability provisions into the third coronavirus relief bill, the CARES Act, to monitor the administration's response and the distribution of billions of dollars of federal funds.

And the House Oversight and Reform Committee has already begun asking questions about the lack of access to testing early on in the crisis, even as Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., says the committee will dig deeply into the administration's response after the crisis is over.

"The committee's top priority is the health and safety of the American people, so we have been working to push the administration to identify and fix problems and to share more accurate information with the public," Maloney said in a statement. "There is no doubt that the administration has mishandled this entire crisis, and our committee will certainly be engaged in robust oversight to review what happened and how to avoid these mistakes in the future."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., raised the prospect of an investigation Sunday, saying Trump's response cost lives and questioning whether he was leveling with Americans early on about the threat.

"What did he know, and when did he know it?" Pelosi asked in an interview on CNN. "That's for an after-action review."