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Katrina Survivors Lobby Congress

A dozen lobbyists-for-a-day, along with several more seasoned Washington advocates, crowded themselves into the private office of Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) on Tuesday afternoon. Three women relaxed on a plush leather sofa and four sat around a small table. The rest bunched along the wall and stood wherever they could find an open spot.

Most of those in the crowd, nearly all of them black, had survived Hurricane Katrina and been ferried by liberal lobbying groups to the nation’s capital to make a passionate plea against federal budget cuts, especially reductions in Medicaid spending.

The mid-day stop in Wilson’s office was just one of many meetings between Katrina survivors and Members or staffers. While the visit included a morning press conference with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), many of the meetings targeted moderate Republicans who have expressed reservations about cuts to Medicaid.

The Campaign for America’s Future, Voices for Working Families, and unions such as the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO helped pay to bring the “lobbyists” to town, helped them articulate their message once they arrived, and helped arrange and organize the discussion inside the Congressional meetings.

Some of the groups have also set up what they call the Emergency Campaign for American Priorities. And while their messages varied slightly from group to group, the main goal was to stop what Pelosi called a “budget with distorted priorities” and what Reid called the “immoral” budget reconciliation process, which is expected to result in significant federal spending cuts.

But Burson Taylor, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), said that the “common-sense reforms to entitlements,” such as Medicaid, “will help sustain these programs over the long haul, so they can continue to help the truly needy, including the victims of the hurricanes over the past several weeks. These are reforms that are important in terms of making sure those who are truly needy … can see these benefits at a time when we’re trying to be fiscally disciplined.”

Although some of the Gulf Coast residents had expected to meet with Wilson herself, they instead met with Legislative Assistant Joe Moser, who explained that Wilson would be returning to Washington later that day.

“We just can’t have these budget cuts,” said Vincent Wilson, a contractor from New Orleans who is also a member of the ACORN Hurricane Survivors Association, in the discussion with Moser. “We’d be willing to help in any way that we can. What can we do?”

Moser, who stood and took notes during the almost 30-minute meeting, explained that Medicaid is also important to his boss because of the high rates of poverty in New Mexico.

“It’s important to pass a Hurricane Katrina relief package, but it’s unclear what it will look like,” Moser told the group.

Bishop Samuel Butler Jr., who along with his wife, Maxine, runs a shelter near Baton Rouge, La., complained to Moser that their facility has received no help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “We urge the Congresswoman to stay the course,” he said.

When Moser suggested that “there are a limited number of resources on the table” because of the war in Iraq, among other federal expenses, Vincent Wilson jumped at the opportunity to discuss the war.

“If we were to lobby to stop the war, would that help?” he said. “What if we were to work to get this president impeached?” Even his fellow Katrina survivors laughed at that one, though many said they agreed. And someone reminded him that Rep. Wilson is a Republican.

After the meeting, Voices for Working Families President Arlene Holt Baker said her group hadn’t come to advocate for a presidential impeachment. “That wasn’t our issue,” she said. “We were there to talk about the budget. But I certainly understand the anger and the frustration coming from the community.”

Other offices on the schedule for the Katrina lobbyists were those of Reps. Mike Castle (R-Del.), Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) and Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.).

“I came here to try to stop the tax budget,” said Sandra Milton, a Houston resident who has been housing up to 17 extra people in her home since Katrina. Milton said she also is looking for assistance for people in her situation, whose bills have swelled as the number of housemates has risen. “We’re not getting any kind of assistance.”

One survivor, Dorothy Stukes of New Orleans, said she was trapped for days inside the Superdome after the storm hit. She said she’s still plagued with nightmares of the ordeal and wants to see more focus on counseling — not cuts to Medicaid.

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