Parties Remain Split on Panel

Posted September 13, 2005 at 6:56pm

Congressional Republicans vowed Tuesday to move forward with their plan to form a bicameral committee to examine the response to Hurricane Katrina, even as Democrats were making it clear that launching such a joint investigation would be impossible without their blessing.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) noted in an interview that such a committee can be created only by legislation and GOP leaders would need his party’s support for it to be approved in the Senate.

Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) continued their call for an independent commission to investigate the matter. But the two Democratic leaders added that if Republicans insist on forming a bicameral committee, there needs to be equal representation between the two parties on the committee and that Democrats should have the authority to issue subpoenas. GOP leaders first proposed creating the panel last week.

But Republicans said they planned to follow historical precedent, which dictates the ruling party maintain a majority and full control on such panels.

Further complicating matters is Democrats admitted unease with entrusting House Republican leaders with the responsibility for leading a comprehensive investigation of the Bush administration on this matter, yet another sign of the bitter relations that exist between the two political parties.

“We are going to do the oversight hearing, that is our responsibility,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.), who chastised “some” Democrats for “trying to exploit everything for a political advantage.”

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) was equally harsh in characterizing Congressional Democrats’ alleged motivations and said he hoped rank-and-file Democrats would “reject the blind partisanship of their leaders.”

“They have decided not to participate [in the joint committee] for partisan political reasons,” he said at his weekly meeting with members of the media. DeLay echoed Santorum’s suggestion that the GOP was moving forward with the plan, even if the Democrats chose not to participate.

Reid said he would not yield on the issue of giving Republicans the sole power to issue subpoenas.

“Why don’t we just have the [House and Senate] Homeland Security committees hold joint hearings?” Reid said. “Other than that, the only thing I will agree to is an equal number of Democrats and Republicans [serving on the committee] and they both having the power of subpoena.”

While not using the word filibuster, Reid did allude to the minority party’s power in the Senate to block legislation when told of Republicans’ plans to move forward with the bicameral committee.

“They can’t do that,” he said flatly. “It takes legislation. We still have a democracy around here. The American public is not going to accept this.”

But Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) suggested that Democrats should fully consider the consequences before outright refusing to participate in the panel.

“I think if an effort is made to accommodate them and they still continue to refuse to participate, I think that could backfire on them,” Lott said.

In place of the bicameral committee, Democrats are advocating for the creation of an independent commission — similar to the 9/ll commission — to investigate the poor emergency response of local, state and federal officials to Hurricane Katrina.

“If we don’t get an outside commission to do this, I think the American public will believe it was flawed,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). “They will see on television, in the hearings, cheerleading and attack-dogging. The American people, at the end of the day, want to know what went wrong and what went right. I don’t think in this partisan environment you can get that done.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) was expected to present Reid with a new proposal on the makeup of the bicameral committee Tuesday night, sources said. It is not clear what Frist was offering, but sources said it would not be a 50-50 split on the panel. And Hastert told reporters Tuesday afternoon, he planned to speak again with Pelosi about the issue.

There is hope among at least some key Republicans and Democrats that the issue will eventually be resolved.

“I am confident in the end we are going to be able to reach an agreement that would allow the joint committee to go forth,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), too, said he “had confidence that Sen. Frist and Sen. Reid are going to work out the bipartisan investigation.”

House Republicans could name their co-chairman for the bicameral committee as early as this week, setting in motion the task of selecting Members to serve on the panel. Senate Republicans have already chosen Collins to serve as their senior representative on the bicameral committee.

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.