Parties Divided Over Katrina Response

Posted September 6, 2005 at 6:53pm

Proposals to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina ran the gamut in Congress on Tuesday, with Democrats pressing for action as early as this week on a long list of social welfare bills while Republican leaders cautioned that Congress may need more than a few days to devise legislative solutions.

In the meantime, Members braced for the second spending request for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in just five days. This time, Congressional aides estimated that the Bush administration would ask for as much as $40 billion because FEMA is using up the initial $10.5 billion Congress appropriated on Friday at a faster rate than it had expected. As of press time, it was unclear whether the White House would make the request last night or today.

Beyond emergency appropriations, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other Democrats pressed to pass legislation by the end of this week that would extend federal social programs such as Medicaid, subsidized housing and unemployment insurance to newly homeless and jobless residents of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Reid also estimated that the “initial investment” for Katrina relief would be upwards of $150 billion.

But the Democrats’ proposals and demands for “immediate” Congressional action were received somewhat skeptically by Republicans.

Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) urged Members to “take a deep breath and think carefully.” Kyl suggested creating a bipartisan task force that would develop a legislative package within 30 days.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said that he will be talking with his chairmen over the next two days “to pull together their ideas for the immediate response, the midterm response, and the long-term response” to the hurricane. But he was short on specifics, saying only, “There are a lot of human practical needs that have to be addressed right now, and the federal government has a major role as we look at health and social services and housing, when you look at food and look at shelter.”

Frist spokeswoman Amy Call said that the Majority Leader and other Senate GOP leaders would “have a better sense of what the [legislative] package will look like” after Frist meets with Republican committee chairmen this morning.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said his panel would hold a hearing Thursday on legislative solutions to the crisis caused by Katrina.

“One of the worst things you can do in politics is start announcing the decisions before you listen to the people,” said Enzi, who, along with ranking member Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), met with representatives from relief agencies Tuesday to find out what they can do legislatively. Enzi also asked for suggestions for what Congress can do to be submitted to the HELP Committee Web site.

However, Kennedy, like many Democrats, offered a list of actions he believes Congress should take in the near future, including extending disaster unemployment insurance to more people, helping fund school districts that are accepting children from the storm-ravaged region, freezing student loan payments and interest for those affected by the disaster and providing mental in addition to physical health care for victims.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who represents a state severely affected by Katrina, appeared to take the middle ground, urging a combination of caution and haste.

“We need thoughtful things. We need innovative things, but we do need speed,” said Lott, who noted that many of the things Democrats are pressing for have already been done by the agencies in charge of health care and unemployment insurance.

For example, Lott said waivers are already in place to help disaster victims secure access to Medicaid as well as for worker compensation if their jobs have been lost.

House Republicans are also taking a somewhat cautious approach to the Congressional response, hesitating to place a dollar figure on the damages. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), for one, reacted negatively to Reid’s suggestion that the reconstruction effort might cost $150 billion.

“I don’t think anybody knows, and anybody trying to know is just playing political games,” he said.

Still, DeLay called the Katrina effort “the House’s No. 1 priority for the foreseeable future” and said he expected an initial Katrina package to be “ready for the floor later this week.”

DeLay suggested Tuesday that the package would likely contain a number of small provisions designed to cut red tape and allow money to be shifted around to cover various shortfalls.

In the meantime, the Louisiana Congressional delegation has continued to craft a legislative package that could provide immediate relief to the displaced hurricane victims. Brian Richardson, spokesman for Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), said the package would likely include Democratic proposals to make sure that Medicaid, housing and unemployment benefits are available to victims in the long term.

The package may also include provisions that enable displaced children to enroll in school without having to produce former school records as well as possible changes to a bankruptcy law passed earlier this year that would make it easier for disaster victims to erase their debts, Richardson said.

“It will be a huge bill, because this is a huge national tragedy,” said Richardson.

Lott said he would work with Landrieu and her Republican colleague, Sen. David Vitter (La.), but he cautioned that the Louisiana delegation bill should not “duplicate or complicate efforts” currently under way.

In the meantime, Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said he was considering proposals to make Medicaid available to storm victims and is working on extending the duties of Office of Refugee Resettlements within the Health and Human Services Department to help not just displaced persons from other countries but also victims of Katrina.

With even Lott saying that relief efforts could cost as much as $100 billion, lawmakers from both parties appeared largely resigned to the fact that billions of dollars would be added to the federal deficit.

Even Senate Budget Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) acknowledged, “We’re going to have to spend money to do whatever it takes to solve the problem. … Yes, it will obviously increase the deficit significantly.”

But Enzi noted that lawmakers need to carefully weigh the proposed solutions being offered, particularly the most costly ones.

“We want to do it as effectively as we can, but there are cost constraints,” Enzi said of Congress’ legislative contributions to the relief efforts. “We have to look at it realistically to see what kinds of things can be done.”

House Democrats joined their Senate colleagues in calling for a multi-tiered response to the disaster. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), along with other Democratic leaders, urged the government to provide immediate compensation and financial assistance to victims, to eliminate bureaucratic hurdles to those needing help and to make a long-term commitment of support to rebuild the Gulf Coast.

Pelosi did not estimate how much the recovery would cost, saying only that the $10.5 billion appropriated so far is “not enough.” She also cautioned against “nickel-and-diming” the region, calling for additional funding for housing, food stamps, unemployment benefits and schools.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee, said: “We take the position that the government has a responsibility to fix it, and to fix it, we’ve got to pay for it.”

Federal assistance aside, the Democratic leadership also insisted that Republican leaders hold House hearings on the federal response, and the request was granted Tuesday.

Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), ranking member on the Government Reform Committee, joined other ranking members by writing a letter to his committee’s chairman, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Transportation Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), outlining his reasons for the inquiry.

“We need to learn for the future what went wrong,” Waxman said. “We need to know why it has happened the way it has.”

Davis announced Tuesday that he would hold hearings next week.

Republican leaders have emphasized that they expect several different committees to probe the government’s response to the disaster and to explore ways to improve future contingency plans.

“It’s fair to say the overall response to this emergency could have and should have been better,” DeLay said.

The Majority Leader dismissed the need for an investigative commission, similar to that which followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, saying that the legislative branch is fully capable of examining the situation itself. Some Members have suggested an independent body look into the response.

“It’s Congress’ responsibility to look into what happened,” he said, though he emphasized that committees should be “deliberate” in scheduling oversight hearings so as not to force too many key administration officials to leave their duties to testify on the Hill all at once.

DeLay said the damage wrought by Katrina could provide the impetus for passage of another energy bill that could include “items that Democrats forced us to take out of the [last] energy bill that, frankly, we ought to have kept.”

House Democrats are also pushing for legislation to remove the Federal Emergency Management Agency from the Homeland Security Department. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) advanced a bill Tuesday to make the agency fully independent.

As leaders from both parties contemplate their next move, the Congressional Black Caucus planned to meet last night to discuss the crisis and come up with its own plan for the coming days.

The CBC, which is concerned about the large number of blacks affected by Katrina, is trying to organize a group to visit the region, possibly as early as Friday. The members are also meeting this morning with Marty Evans, president of the Red Cross, for a briefing on the conditions and are working on ways to help the displaced.

“We’re not going to sit back and wait,” said one CBC staffer. “Somebody’s got to step up.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), a vocal critic of the government’s handling of the catastrophe, is calling on the White House to declare a national day of prayer for the victims. He is also working with his Congressional colleagues and the CBC to set up a relief fund for those affected by Katrina.

“We have got to do what we can do to help,” he said.

Cummings said Congress and the Bush administration first have an obligation to go “door to door” to rescue victims, and then to help the displaced reconstruct their lives. He said every Member should be furious at the recent course of events, and must come together to help the recovery efforts.