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Bush, Congress offer more aid to hurricane victims
McClatchy Newspapers


September 09, 2005

WASHINGTON - With signs Hurricane Katrina is eroding his support within his own base, President Bush worked overtime Thursday to reassure Americans that his administration is dedicated to helping hundreds of thousands of displaced people rebuild their lives.

"The government is going to be with you for the long haul," the president said, speaking directly to hurricane survivors and evacuees in a short, televised speech. He also declared Friday, Sept. 16, a national day of prayer and remembrance for hurricane victims, detailed some of the emergency relief headed survivors' way, and promised states taking in evacuees that they will be reimbursed by the federal government.

His remarks came as two nonpartisan research organizations, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and Zogby International, released polls showing the president's approval ratings sinking to lows amid widespread discontent with the government's response to the hurricane and flooding of a week and a half ago. Katrina and its aftermath broke levees that submerged New Orleans, devastated cities and towns along the Gulf Coast and left thousands feared dead.

While the president remained in Washington, he sent Vice President Dick Cheney to tour affected areas along the Gulf Coast, and first lady Laura Bush visited schools in Iowa and Mississippi that were helping children affected by the hurricane.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, the House voted 410-11 to approve $51.8 billion in emergency aid, atop an initial installment of $10.5 billion, and the Senate was preparing for a vote on the additional spending as well. Members from both parties now estimate federal costs could reach $200 billion.

Democratic leaders balked at the spending mostly going to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose director, Michael Brown, has been criticized for mismanaging the early response to the hurricane.

"After everything that has happened with FEMA, is there anyone, anyone, who believes that we should continue to let the money go to FEMA and be distributed by them?" said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Democrats also threatened to boycott a joint House-Senate investigation into the hurricane response announced the day before by the Republican leadership. Instead, minority leaders renewed demands for an independent committee. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said a Republican-controlled committee would be stacked to protect the White House, with Democrats getting fewer than half the slots and not enough guarantees of subpoena power.

"I don't see this as on the level," Pelosi said.

The vice president, speaking to reporters in Mississippi, defended the joint investigation proposed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. He likened it to the Iran-Contra probe, of which he was the ranking House minority member as a congressman during the 1980s, when Democrats held power in the legislative branch.

"We did it the same way then," he said. "We had both houses, both parties, represented on one committee . . . we did a good job."

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., introduced a resolution urging the president to appoint someone with business experience to oversee the congressional spending.

"When this much money gets put out this fast, there's a real danger of waste, fraud and abuse," Sessions said in a release, calling for someone "without a political agenda" to report directly to the president.

One Republican from a hurricane-prone state, Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, joined Democrats, including Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, in calling for FEMA to be taken out of the control of the Department of Homeland Security and restored to an independent, Cabinet-level position.

Bush, in his speech Thursday, told hurricane victims they could register by telephone or Internet for $2,000 cash assistance per household for food, gas and clothing. If they were stuck at shelters, he said, relief workers would come to them to get them set up. He said 400,000 people already have registered.

The president also said people displaced from counties in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that have been declared disaster areas are being given "evacuee status" that will allow them to obtain federal food stamp, child care, health care, housing and unemployment subsidies without the typical paperwork.

"We know that many of you no longer have the legal documents or the records to prove your eligibility for the benefits you've been getting," he said. And he promised to work with Congress to reimburse states that have agreed to take in hurricane evacuees.

"The states that have opened up their doors should not be penalized for coming to the aid of Americans in distress," he said.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu continued to scorn Bush for his early assertion that no one had anticipated the breech of the levees that flooded New Orleans.

"Everybody anticipated the breach of the levees, Mr. President, including computer simulations in which this administration participated," she said.

Such criticism threatens an already troubled second-term president.

A Pew poll released Thursday showed 67 percent of Americans saying Bush could have done more to speed up relief efforts. His overall approval ratings in that poll sank to 40 percent, while disapproval of his overall job as president rose to 52 percent. His drops in support were among Republican respondents; his approval rating by conservatives slipped from 91 percent in July to 84 percent now, and among moderate Republicans from 81 percent to 70 percent.

The poll also showed a racial divide. Two-thirds of blacks said the response would have been faster if most of those affected were white; 71 percent of whites said race made no difference in the government's response.

A Zogby poll put the president's approval rating at 41 percent. When pollsters asked those with a negative view of the government's response who deserves most of the blame, 27 percent said the president; 22 percent said FEMA director Brown, 15 percent said Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and 8 percent said New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.


Distributed to subscribers by Scripps Howard News Service.

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