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Leaders Prepare Katrina Panel

Acknowledging that relief efforts in response to Hurricane Katrina have been inadequate, Republican leaders announced Wednesday the formation of a bicameral committee to conduct a full-scale investigation into preparations for the storm and the subsequent response.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leadership Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) outlined the new committee in a joint news conference, calling for a bicameral, bipartisan panel of senior lawmakers.

“Americans deserve answers,” said Frist, who asserted there is a commonly held belief that once the hurricane had passed, the initial relief effort was insufficient on all levels.

“We all agree that in many areas the initial relief response to Hurricane Katrina was unacceptable at the local, state and federal level,” he said.

Members of the Democratic leadership, however, were notably absent from the event, and later criticized the panel’s structure.

The GOP leaders said the panel, which will be able to issue subpoenas, will have six months to conduct its investigation and must report its findings to Congress no later than Feb. 15, 2006. The panel is not expected to call for specific legislation, but will instead report its findings to the relevant standing committees.

According to senior House and Senate aides familiar with the plan, the joint panel will be led by the majority, although the ratio of Republican and Democratic seats has yet to be determined. A Senate GOP leadership aide said the panel staff would be drawn from aides who currently serve on other Congressional panels.

“It will be consistent with other committees we’ve had in the past,” said the Senate aide, who compared the panel’s structure to the committee that investigated the Iran-Contra Affair during the administration of President Ronald Reagan.

The committee’s creation will supercede any other Congressional investigation, including an inquiry that had already been announced by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. But the Homeland Security panel will hold one hearing into the matter next week while the new bicameral committee is being formed, said a Senate GOP leadership aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“The focus here is to have one bicameral, bipartisan committee that would serve as a joint committee … representing both bodies that would then be able to report back to the individual committees in both bodies so that they could take legislative action to correct the breakdowns where they occurred,” the Senate GOP leadership aide said.

Congressional aides confirmed that Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel, will serve as co-chairman of the joint committee. Aides could not provide information late Wednesday afternoon, however, on which House lawmaker will chair the committee.

At press time, it remained unclear whether House Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) planned to move ahead with hearings his panel intended to begin next week, but a senior House aide said he expects those proceedings will be suspended.

Davis aides did not return numerous telephone calls seeking comment.

House and Senate leaders are expected to appoint the committee’s remaining members, although many details, including how many lawmakers will serve on the panel, have yet to be determined. Congressional aides said the panel will meet “as soon as it can.”

“We hope that we’ll be able to move forward quickly,” a Senate aide said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who had earlier called for the creation of a joint committee, criticized the Wednesday announcement, asserting the committee’s structure will be ineffective.

“I am disappointed that the committee Speaker Hastert and Leader Frist have outlined is not truly bipartisan, will not be made up of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, cannot write legislation, and will not have bipartisan subpoena power,” Pelosi said in a statement.

“It is long past time for Republicans to rise above partisanship in addressing this crisis. People who have lost everything and are in dire need of food, income and housing assistance cannot wait for multiple Congressional committees to act,” she said.

Similarly, Senate Democrats also panned the idea and upped the stakes by calling for the formation of an independent investigative panel similar to the 9/11 commission to examine the government’s slow response to the crisis.

“An investigation of the Republican Administration by a Republican-controlled Congress is like having a pitcher call his own balls and strikes,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement released by his office. “Americans deserve answers independent of politics. Our government must be accountable to the people.”

Still, a House GOP leadership aide emphasized that “it would be a bipartisan, bicameral committee.”

Even before the word of the bicameral panel leaked out, Reid was trying to shape the scope of the previously announced Collins inquiry. Reid released a letter he sent to Collins on Tuesday calling on her to conduct a thorough investigation of the Bush administration’s actions before and after the hurricane wrought destruction along the Gulf coast.

Reid’s suggestions to Collins included an investigation of how engaged Bush and his top advisers were in pre-hurricane preparations and the subsequent relief operations.

“When it became apparent a major hurricane was days away from striking the Gulf Coast, why didn’t President Bush immediately return to Washington from his vacation and why didn’t he recall key officials and staff members back from their vacations,” Reid wrote Collins. “Would the presence of key officials in Washington have improved the response?”

Reid’s spokeswoman, Rebecca Kirszner, said Reid would continue to seek answers to these questions.

In the meantime, Congressional lawmakers hoped to move ahead with numerous bills aimed at easing relief efforts in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, including a second emergency appropriation of nearly $52 billion, following an initial $10.5 billion aid package approved last week.

“All of these bills have one goal: to get help to the people of the Gulf Coast and to get it to them now,” Hastert said.

Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) said while he agreed that a review of the local, state and federal response was needed, he also cautioned that Congress should be careful not to impede the ongoing relief effort.

“Our management needs to be on the ground right now until every life is saved and every body is retrieved, and then there will be plenty of time to pick through the rubble and decide how it ought to have been stacked,” Craig said. “We here in Congress forget that those folks spend more time preparing to listen to us, to react to us than they spend out on the ground saving lives.”