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Katrina Response Likely to Delay Adjournment

After swiftly approving a $10.5 billion disaster relief bill on Friday, Congress begins this week tackling the same issues they expected to take up when they left more than a month ago for the August recess — a repeal of the estate tax and reauthorizing the Coast Guard — but are certain to quickly return to dealing with Hurricane Katrina’s impact. [IMGCAP(1)]

A resolution expressing sympathy for the unknown number of victims affected by Katrina will be voted on early in the week, but with damage estimates soaring into the untold billions and predictions of years of recovery time ahead, it’s clear that resolution and last week’s action will be far from the last word from Congress on disaster relief for the Gulf Coast region.

With a full plate of non-disaster legislation to slog through — from nine unfinished appropriations bills to a controversial budget reconciliation measure and various proposals to revamp Social Security — dealing with the catastrophic scope of the damage from Katrina could very well add days, if not weeks, to what was already going to be a late adjournment for the first session.

Though both chambers are on track to follow through on their pre-recess plans, one senior House GOP aide noted that various legislation related to Katrina could come up in both chambers this week, including bills dealing with temporarily relocating federal courts, agencies and workers on the Gulf Coast. Unspecified tax issues related to the storm could also come up, the aide added.

And with even President Bush acknowledging that relief efforts in New Orleans and elsewhere have been “not acceptable,” Members on Friday began seizing on how and why rescue efforts for thousands of stranded refugees were bungled in the first few days of the endeavor.

On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called on Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) to hold hearings on the response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Homeland Security Department as soon as the relief and recovery effort is complete.

Frist also contacted other Senate committee chairmen to solicit non-appropriations ideas for how to deal with the aftermath of Katrina, according to a Frist aide. A meeting between Frist and the chairmen is scheduled for Wednesday morning.

In the meantime, it appears that Frist is likely to move forward with plans to take up a bill on Native Hawaiians as well as a contentious measure to permanently repeal the estate tax. Aides expect the Native Hawaiian bill, which would give people of that descent a status much like currently recognized American Indian tribes, to be blocked today by opponents. The estate tax bill will likely take up much of the rest of the week.

Similarly, the House is scheduled to take up a Coast Guard reauthorization bill and several other noncontroversial measures, according to Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

But Bonjean acknowledged “Hurricane Katrina takes immediate priority for the Congressional leadership.” In fact, relief efforts will be topic A at House GOP leadership team meetings this week, he noted, while secondary issues will include developing a comprehensive fall legislative agenda.

That fall agenda in the House is expected to include conference reports on the nine annual appropriations bills that have yet to be sent to the president. Many of them face tougher hurdles than in past years because this is the first year in which bills with disparate subcommittee jurisdictions must be reconciled. In previous years, the issues each bill dealt with matched exactly, even if the monetary amounts did not. Of course, given the fact that the deadline for appropriations bills is Sept. 30, it seems likely that many, if not most, of the nine remaining will be wrapped into a catchall spending measure.

In addition, House GOP leaders have said they want to deal with an immigration law rewrite that at the very least will include border security issues, a budget reconciliation measure that is slated to slash Medicaid funding and agriculture programs by billions of dollars, and potentially a Social Security overhaul bill.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) held out the possibility that Congress would need to pass an economic stimulus package in the near future to ensure that Katrina’s effects on gas prices and other commodities do not drag down the entire U.S. economy.

Despite the passage of the interim disaster measure, House and Senate Democrats continued to insist that Congress would be remiss to simply conduct business as usual by voting on what they view as non-critical measures such as the estate tax repeal.

After his call for Frist to jettison next week’s schedule in favor of passing a disaster relief bill was pre-empted by the Senate’s passage of the $10.5 billion measure on Friday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) continued to insist that, “the security and safety of the Gulf Coast residents must be our first order of business.”

Reid spokeswoman Rebecca Kirszner clarified that Reid prefers for the Senate to focus on “legislation that directly helps people of the Gulf Coast. We should focus on housing and public health, and passing [the] Energy & Water, Homeland Security” and Defense appropriations bills.

Even Frist’s office held out the possibility of a change in schedule if Republican members return and ask for it, noted Frist Spokeswoman Amy Call.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took credit for forcing the decision by Hastert and Frist Thursday to bring Congress back early last week to approve emergency funds for the disaster, considering she had pressed them to do just that a day earlier. She shifted focus at the end of the week, urging Hastert to create a Members-only “Select Hurricane Relief Task Force” in charge of devising legislation to respond to the crisis.

Even if the legislative aspects of Congress’ response to Katrina aren’t fully developed this week, it’s clear that the tragedy on the Gulf Coast threatens to overshadow other important and contentious issues in the weeks to come, most notably, the hearings on Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, which are set to begin today.

The catastrophe also has taken the focus off of the Iraq war, which over the August recess became the issue that dominated the month as anti-war protesters amassed outside Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch and lawmakers found themselves dealing with constituents concerned about the continuing death toll in Iraq.

Even a stalwart conservative like Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said before the hurricane hit that, “Even in my state … patience is running thin. Our patience is not long [for wars]. After all, most of the great wars of history seldom lasted for more than four years, and we’re getting close to four years here.” But, obviously, now Lott’s attention is focused elsewhere.

Still, dealing with anxiety among Democrats and Republicans over the Iraq war and the administration’s plan for winning it may simply be postponed until later this fall. After all, Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) has vowed to call Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld before the panel in the next few weeks to answer questions about progress in the Iraq war.

In yet another hearing that could prove embarrassing to the Bush administration, Warner also plans to call witnesses this fall to testify about who has been held accountable in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq, according to his spokesman.

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