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Collins to Cooperate With House Katrina Panel

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) pledged Friday to work closely with her House counterparts to examine the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina, after Democrats blocked Republican attempts to form a bicameral, bipartisan panel to investigate the matter.

Collins’ willingness to coordinate her Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs inquiry with a House panel comprised exclusively of Republicans ensures that there will be some collaboration between the two chambers’ efforts to look into the failures of local, state and federal governments to adequately respond to this natural disaster.

“Together, Sen. Joe Lieberman [D-Conn.], the other distinguished Members of the Committee, and I, working cooperatively with the select committee the House has established, will focus on answering the questions that have vexed all of America since the day the hurricane hit Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana,” Collins wrote to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in a Sept. 23 letter. “Why weren’t governments at all levels better prepared for the hurricane? Once the hurricane hit, why did it take so long to mount [an] effective response? And what can we do to prevent this nightmare from recurring?”

Collins was responding to a frustrated Frist, who had urged the Maine Republican earlier in the day to synchronize her panel’s investigation with that of the newly formed House committee, after Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made it clear that Democrats would never all allow the bicameral panel to be formed.

“I am pleased that Sen. Frist has given up his pursuit of a Congressional whitewash of the government’s failures to prepare and respond to Hurricane Katrina,” Reid said in a statement released by his office.

The Minority Leader has said he does support Collins’ investigation and believes that Lieberman, the panel’s ranking member, and the other Democrats serving on the committee should actively participate in that probe.

But Democrats object to the bicameral panel, arguing that it would allow Republicans to dictate the scope of the investigation, including what witnesses would be called before the committee.

Senate rules empowered Democrats to block the creation of the panel in that chamber, but Republicans were able to form a similar committee in the House. So far, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has refused to appoint Democrats to serve on the committee, although Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) and Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) — two Members whose districts were hit hard by the storm — attended the panel’s first hearing last week.

On Tuesday, the embattled former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, is scheduled to testify before the House select committee.

“Our question is, ‘Why are the Democrats boycotting the investigation, and why are they refusing to participate?’” said Amy Call, Frist’s spokeswoman. “It is the Congress’ responsibility to find answers.”

A senior Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, suggested that it would be difficult for Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security Committee to work with the newly formed House panel.

“There could be big problems if they have to deal solely with Republicans in the House,” the aide said. “I don’t see how this is going to work.”

In the meantime, Democrats repeated their calls for Congress to establish an independent commission to examine the inadequacies of the emergency response, which is being blamed for what is likely to amount to thousands of deaths along the Gulf Coast.

“Now more than ever, it is clear that we need an independent commission free of partisan politics to provide the people in the Gulf — and all Americans — with the answers they need and deserve,” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said in a statement released Friday afternoon.

The partisan sniping between the two parties on how to proceed with the Katrina investigation was taking place just as another deadly storm, Hurricane Rita, began to batter Louisiana and Texas.