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Hill Wants Details From Bush

As Congress and the Bush administration work aggressively to tackle the recovery from Hurricane Katrina, House Republicans are giving the White House mixed reviews on its communication effort with the Hill, on both the political and the policy fronts.

Several Congressional sources said that the flow of information from the administration has improved since the first week of the Katrina crisis. But with legislative proposals moving quickly through the system and a steady drumbeat of negative media coverage weakening the GOP’s standing with the public, House Republicans are pushing for the White House to provide more substantive policy details as well as a more cohesive message.

“I think the administration severely flubbed the first three or four days of this,” said a senior House Republican leadership aide. “From that point on, I think they’ve been very good.”

At the request of the leadership, the administration has instituted regular conference calls with House and Senate leadership aides and key committee personnel to discuss developments and message strategy related to Katrina. The White House has also been more forthcoming of late with details about how it plans to spend the billions of dollars Congress has appropriated so far, Hill aides say.

As a result, the frustrations felt by many Republican Members and aides in the initial days of the crisis have somewhat subsided .

“Whenever we coordinate with the White House, it’s a better way for all of us to stay on message so we know what the left and right hand are doing, and we appreciate them reaching out to us,” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Yet some Republicans still complain privately about what they consider to be a glaring contrast between the two big stories right now on Capitol Hill: Katrina and the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of John Roberts. While the White House has set up a formal communications “war room” to serve as a clearinghouse for the Roberts nomination, as it did with other crucial efforts during the Bush presidency, the White House has not done so with Katrina.

“They do a fantastic job on coordinating on Judge Roberts and other issues,” said a Republican Congressional aide. “One would think it would be to their benefit to have an effort like that” on Katrina.

But White House spokesman Trent Duffy dismissed the idea that establishing a Katrina war room would help matters.

“We’re all in this together,” Duffy said. “War rooms are designed to fight partisan battles. We’re not fighting a partisan battle on this.”

As recent poll numbers have shown Bush dropping in the public’s esteem, House and Senate Republicans have looked anxiously for opportunities to turn the tide and make the case that they are taking swift action to deal with Katrina.

“Obviously we as Republicans have to deal with the reality that there is a perception out there that this Republican administration dropped the ball,” said a senior House GOP leadership aide. But the White House has “a different set of communications challenges. We don’t control FEMA. We don’t control federal agencies. We have to get out there and show that we are leading and we have to communicate that.”

When Katrina first hit, many Members found it difficult to demonstrate that kind of leadership because they lacked the necessary facts at their fingertips. Republicans lawmakers spoke openly of their frustrations with the pace of the response and their dealings with the federal bureaucracy.

This week, the senior leadership aide said, “the communications flow from the agencies has been good. It wasn’t initially, but it’s gotten better. It had to.”

Overall, the White House has at times been unable to provide the level of detail Congress usually desires, particularly on appropriations bills. Hill aides said they recognized the fluidity of the situation and the difficulty of providing line-by-line accountings at this stage in the process.

At the same time, Members and staff are wary of providing the administration with a “blank check,” especially since Congress has already provided more than $60 billion and will likely appropriate tens or hundreds of billions more.

Many lawmakers were taken aback last week when the administration asked for a $51 billion supplemental just a few days after receiving the first $10 billion infusion. Republican leaders were told of the second request during a visit to the White House last Tuesday and felt blindsided, according to several leadership sources.

“There was very little communication on the [second] supplemental,” said another senior Republican leadership aide. “This number seemed to come out of thin air, and then there was a justification for it later.”

Frustrations among Members came to a head at last Wednesday’s Republican Conference meeting, as lawmakers peppered Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten with questions. While most lawmakers gave Bolten credit just for showing up, some grew impatient with his inability to answer their specific queries about how all the money would be spent.

But Duffy pointed out that in addition to Bolten’s visit, House Members received a detailed briefing last week on the House floor from nearly every member of the Bush cabinet. In addition, legislative affairs staffers strive to maintain regular contact with lawmakers to keep them abreast of the Katrina situation.

“To the extent that this is the top Congressional and White House priority, we are working hand-in-glove with our friends in Congress,” Duffy said.