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House Vote Scheduled On Katrina Committee

The House is expected to take up legislation today to create a select committee assigned to investigate preparations for Hurricane Katrina and subsequent emergency efforts, even as lawmakers continue to spar across the aisle over how the panel should be constructed.

According to a copy of the legislation, the House component of the panel would be made up of 20 Members, 11 Republicans and nine Democrats. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would both serve as ex-officio members.

But House Democrats, who have objected over the committee’s majority tilt, are expected to seek to amend the bill, possibly offering substitute legislation to create an independent commission on the disaster, similar in structure to the panel that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“If they bring a joint committee up tomorrow, Democrats will offer through some means — hopefully we will be given a substitute, but if we are not given a substitute we will do it by a motion to recommit — a commission, a 9/11 commission, which history shows us was prepared to effect oversight,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday.

Although Pelosi had earlier said she would not appoint members to the joint committee unless each party holds and equal number of seats, Hoyer said Wednesday a joint committee could work in conjunction with an independent panel.

“We are not opposed to [a joint committee],” Hoyer said. “What we want to assure is that there is at least one independent commission, with subpoena power, that can proceed as the 9/11 commission did.”

Although Congressional GOP leaders had initially announced a joint panel, the House resolution would create the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, whose chairman would “consult with the chairman of a Senate committee conducting a parallel investigation” to address joint meetings, hearings, the issuance of subpoenas and joint staff interviews of witnesses.

A House leadership aide said the committee, which will be required to complete its work and report to Congress by Feb. 15, 2006, is expected to cost $500,000.

In addition to the joint investigative committee, Hastert announced Wednesday that he will dispatch a bipartisan team of appropriators to the Gulf Coast to improve Congressional oversight of the continuing clean-up efforts.

House leadership aides said a list of Members who will be appointed to the team was being prepared Wednesday, but it was not available at press time.

But Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the panel’s ranking member, criticized the proposal and asserted that any Congressional trip would detract from clean-up efforts.

“I’ve seen Congressional trips in these situations become photo-ops that take time and energy away from emergency activities,” Obey said in a statement Wednesday. “We need to give emergency responders a week or so to do their work and stabilize the situation before we divert their attention by asking them to be Congressional travel guides.”

Across the Capitol, Senate Democrats were rebuffed Wednesday in their attempt to create an independent commission to investigate preparations and response to the hurricane when an amendment to the Commerce, Justice and science appropriations legislation, put forth by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), was defeated on a procedural motion.

In a press conference following the vote, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (R-Nev.) said Democrats would continue to seek an independent panel, which under Clinton’s proposal would have a chairman appointed by President Bush and members appointed by Republican and Democratic leaders.

“There will be an investigation, it is only a question of when it will be,” Reid vowed. The Nevadan also called on President Bush to include the proposal in a prime-time speech he is scheduled to make tonight from Louisiana.

Senators have likewise failed to come to agreement on the structure of a Congressional committee to investigate hurricane issues, despite continuing negotiations.

Reid, who has noted that his party has the ability to block creation of the committee, said he has declined a number of iterations including a proposal made Wednesday, asserting that the panel must be made up of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats.

“I will be happy to participate in a bipartisan investigation,” Reid said. A spokeswoman for Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) could not be reached for comment.

In a Tuesday letter addressed to President Bush, however, the Senate Republican Leadership called on the commander-in-chief to promote a “Marshall Plan” for the region in his speech tonight.

“We stand ready to work with you to lay out a comprehensive approach to the coordination of relief and development efforts through a “Marshall Plan” for the Gulf Coast as soon as possible,” the letter states.

Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) outlined such a plan in an announcement last week, proposing the creation of a “temporary stand-alone” relief agency to coordinate recovery efforts in several areas: relief aid to victims; coordination between agencies; social services such as education, health care and housing; economic development; and charitable giving.

“The idea of a Marshall Plan is supported by leadership,” a Republican leadership aide asserted.

In the meantime, the House Government Reform Committee is scheduled to hold the first in a series of hearings Thursday focused on preparations for Hurricane Katrina and subsequent relief effort. The initial hearing, however, will examine emergency plans in other major metropolitan areas and not specifically the areas affected by the recent Category Five storm.

“It’s a first step in the right direction,” Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean said of the hearing.

The Senate Governmental Affairs and Homeland Security Committee held a similar hearing Wednesday, which Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said would serve as the basis for future joint committee meetings.

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