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Parties Jockey for Attention on Katrina Spending

While polls show that most Americans aren’t paying much attention to the nomination of John Roberts to be chief justice of the United States, the same is certainly not true of Hurricane Katrina. [IMGCAP(1)]

Indeed, both Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders this week will jockey for the upper hand in the battle over which party can convince people that they care the most about hurricane victims.

The competition appears especially acute in the Senate, where Republicans and Democrats are set for a floor clash today over the best way to help victims of the hurricane.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) on Monday announced another retreat from the fall agenda that had beckoned Congress just two weeks ago. The Repub-

lican Party’s dreams of shrinking government by cutting billions of dollars from government services will have to wait as long as a month and a half before getting Senate floor time, Frist said.

Yes, that means the Senate Budget Committee must now wait until Oct. 26 to begin work on a budget reconciliation measure that contains a slew of GOP priorities, including opening up Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to exploration for oil and natural gas and cutting $10 billion from Medicaid.

In the near future, however, Frist appears to be settling on a plan to pursue regular appropriations bills, while continuing to devise a package of disaster relief legislation on the side and waiting for Roberts’ nomination to ripen for floor debate.

Democrats already have offered a slew of disaster relief measures to the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill, which is currently up for floor debate. But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) revealed Monday that he has learned that Republicans plan to block most of the Democratic Katrina-related amendments offered to the CJS bill.

Those amendments include measures to provide states with more Medicaid funding for Katrina survivors, to provide emergency housing vouchers for evacuees, to place a moratorium on evacuees’ debt payments, and to establish an independent commission to investigate the initial federal and local response to Katrina’s widespread devastation along the Gulf Coast.

“We had hoped the Senate would act on these items promptly but now understand the Majority will use procedural devices to hold them up,” Reid said in a floor speech Monday.

Republicans may be reluctant to cede ground to the Democrats, because Democrats, apparently, aren’t ceding any ground to them.

One senior Senate GOP aide noted that Democrats have balked at passing Republican Katrina bills, such as one to waive the work requirements for welfare families displaced by Katrina along the Gulf Coast.

“A rather ominous pattern is developing where Democrats criticize Republicans about not acting when it turns out it is the Democrats blocking Republican solutions to Katrina problems,” the staffer said.

But Reid spokesman Jim Manley said Republicans failed to consult with Democrats on the welfare bill and have subsequently told Democrats they are retooling it.

Still, another Republican Senate staffer noted that, as a practical matter, GOP leaders want to keep the Congressional response to the disaster “organized and not an ad-hoc approach,” particularly when it comes to adding Katrina-related measures to regular appropriations bills. House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield agreed that House leaders would prefer to keep “the disaster stuff on one track and the regular [appropriations] bills on another track.”

As a result, Senate Republicans are set to object today to the Democratic amendments, arguing that placing legislative language on spending bills violates an oft-ignored Senate rule. Those objections, known as points of order, need only 51 votes to be overruled, and they commonly are knocked down during appropriations debates. However, Republicans leaders are likely to rally their rank and file to sustain the points of order, which will prevent the provisions from being adopted.

Both sides do agree, however, that the debate over the CJS spending bill will likely be finished up today, with the Senate slated to turn next to the Transportation, Treasury, the Judiciary and Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill.

Of course, Democrats have a host of disaster-relief amendments ready for that bill as well, according to Manley. At the top of the list are proposals to pay for the rebuilding of infrastructure destroyed by the hurricane, he said.

Though the two parties seem reluctant to embrace each other’s hurricane relief efforts, not all Republicans plan to resist Democratic amendments, most notably Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

Coming from a state ravaged by Katrina, Cochran said he was open to just about any idea for providing storm survivors with assistance, and he indicated that he thinks all the amendments to CJS should be dealt with “on the merits.”

“I would hope we’d try to find a way to not raise points of order,” said Cochran, who added, “There’s no blanket policy on amendments that deal with emergencies. … We may very well accept some of them.”

Cochran said he saw no problems in placing Katrina-related measures on the CJS bill. “If this bill bogs down in conference [with the House], we can move those items to a supplemental,” he said, referring to the likelihood that Congress will have to pass a third emergency supplemental spending request.

Cochran said he didn’t know when the White House would request another disaster aid bill, but he said it’s obvious another one will be needed.

“We’ll have another supplemental as soon as we know what the needs are,” Cochran said.

Meanwhile, the House is set to deal with at least three hurricane-related measures, including one on charitable tax credits, another encouraging citizens to be “good Samaritan” volunteers and another to expedite federal procurements during an emergency.

Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said the response to Katrina continues to be “very fluid,” with leaders devising legislation and waiting to hear what more is needed of Congress.

“We’re moving forward on an as-needed basis,” Bonjean said.

Bonjean added that House leaders are working on another energy bill to deal with gas prices that skyrocketed following drilling and refining disruptions in the Gulf of Mexico following Katrina. That bill could be ready for action by next week.