Congress passes bill for $51.8 billion in relief

By David Espo: The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Acting with extraordinary speed, Congress approved an additional $51.8 billion for relief and recovery from Hurricane Katrina on Thursday. President Bush pledged to make it “easy and simple as possible” for uncounted, uprooted storm victims to collect food stamps and other government benefits.

“We’re not asking for a handout, but we do need help,” said Sen. Trent Lott — whose home state of Mississippi suffered grievously from the storm — as lawmakers cleared the bill for Bush’s signature less than 24 hours after he requested it. The measure includes $2,000 debit cards for families to use on immediate needs.

The overwhelming, bipartisan support for the measure — it passed 411-10 in the House and 97-0 in the Senate — masked murmurs of concern about a rapidly rising price tag as well as a growing atmosphere of political jockeying in Congress less than two weeks after the hurricane battered the Gulf Coast.

Congressional Democratic leaders said they would refuse to appoint members to a committee that Republican leaders intend to create to investigate the administration’s readiness and response to the storm.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called the GOP plan “a sham that is just the latest example of congressional Republicans being the foxes guarding the president’s hen house.” Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said it was like a baseball pitcher calling “his own balls and strikes.” Both urged appointment of an independent panel like the Sept. 11 commission.

Republicans said they intended to go ahead despite the threatened boycott. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee told reporters there had been a “systemwide failure” in the response to the storm. Citing problems at the local, state and federal levels, he said, “We will get to the bottom of that” in a congressional investigation.

Beyond that, said New York Rep. Tom Reynolds, chairman of the House GOP campaign committee, “it is reprehensible that some elected officials are looking to score political points in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation.”
Even before Bush spoke and Congress acted, the government provided fresh evidence of the impact of the storm.

The Labor Department reported that roughly 10,000 workers filed for unemployment benefits last week after losing their jobs as a result of the storm, and said the level would rise sharply. In a painful irony, analysts said Thursday’s number would have been higher yet except that the storm forced claims offices to close and prevented more of the newly jobless from filling out their paperwork.

Bush, his poll numbers sagging and his administration buffeted by criticism of its response to the storm, dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney to the region and met with GOP congressional leaders at the White House. At mid-afternoon, flanked by members of his Cabinet, he stepped to the microphones to pledge additional help, ask for patience and announce a national day of prayer for Friday of next week.