No Progress in Fight Over Hurricane Panel
Democrats and Republicans in both chambers remained unwilling Tuesday to cede ground on the terms of the joint bicameral committee tasked with investigating the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, leaving the select panel’s future in question.
While some talks appeared to be under way in the Senate, the House remained deadlocked on the composition of the panel. House Democrats continued to press their call for an independent panel modeled after the 9/11 Commission, while the GOP leadership was poised to move forward and appoint its members to the joint committee today.
House Republicans vowed to forge ahead with the panel regardless of whether Democrats decide to participate.
“I would just once again call on the Democrats, in the interest of the truth and the victims of Hurricane Katrina, to set aside any partisan hostilities and join the Republicans and the bipartisan, bicameral joint select committee to review the preparations in response to the devastating hurricane,” Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said during his regular press briefing.
DeLay declined to speculate on whether Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) might choose to appoint Democrats to the panel himself if House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declines to do so. He also pointed out that Katrina committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) already has announced plans to call former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown as a witness and said that it would be “pretty irresponsible of the Democrats to miss that opportunity” to question him.
Pelosi, for her part, reiterated her position Tuesday, saying Democrats will not come to the table and participate unless Republicans give them equal representation on the committee as well as full subpoena power. The 20-person panel would be made up of 11 Republicans and nine Democrats under the GOP proposal.
Brendan Daly, spokesman to Pelosi, said: “As it stands now, it’s a sham. There’s been no change in her position on that.”
Daly added that Democrats will not participate with Republicans on the joint committee unless concessions are made, and at this point, “there’s been no attempt [by Republicans] to compromise.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday that a 9/11-style commission is the best and only way to ensure Americans get the answers they deserve about the Katrina response. He added that it is critical to find out why — four years after 9/11 — “we were still so ill prepared to respond effectively.”
“The public saw the 9/11 Commission, they thought the 9/11 Commission did a good job,” Hoyer said.
As the hard-line jockeying continued between party leaders, the political stakes in the battle continued to escalate. New opinion polls released Tuesday showed the American public panning the White House response to Katrina, and when coupled with the continued military problems in Iraq and soaring gasoline prices, President Bush remains mired at the lowest approval ratings of his presidency.
But Congressional Democrats also face a risk in appearing to obstruct any investigation, despite the fact that polling showed a huge majority of respondents favoring an independent commission. One House Democratic leadership aide suggested that it is politically tenuous for either party to keep up the stalemate indefinitely.
“Who is going to give any credibility to an investigation that is led by a Republican and only involves Republicans?” this source said. “I think that it behooves both sides to come to a compromise, but that doesn’t mean that a compromise is going to occur.”
Across the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) were expected to meet today to discuss the select committee controversy.
Reid has been under heavy pressure from Pelosi and other Democrats not to go along with Frist’s plan to use the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), as the main vehicle to lead the Senate’s investigation into the Bush administration handling of the Katrina crisis.
Senate GOP leadership aides said it was vital for Congress to discharge its oversight role in probing the Katrina disaster immediately, adding that there was time for an independent commission to be appointed after the present crisis has been resolved.
“This is no time for Congress to give up its oversight role,” said a Republican staffer. “This is a time for action, and this is what standing committees are designed for. A select committee could also be helpful, but Congress needs to act, and an independent commission releasing some report in a year is not going to help anything.”
Reid, though, has objected to Frist’s proposal for a select committee. Democrats believe the proposal, as drafted, does not cover a long enough time period to investigate and also gives too much weight to the House in deciding what direction the panel should take. “As it is currently drafted, Sen. Reid will oppose” the Frist select-committee proposal, said Rebecca Kirsner, a Reid aide.
Without a plan for a joint committee in place, GOP leaders are striving to show that their party is actively moving ahead in addressing the humanitarian crisis wrought by Katrina.
Senate Republicans were briefed Tuesday by Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolton on the status of the Katrina recovery effort. Bolton’s briefing included a detailed breakdown of how and where the Bush administration has spent the $62 billion in emergency funds appropriated by lawmakers so far.
Bolton told the GOP Senators that the administration has disbursed roughly $16 billion so far, and some Republican insiders are now beginning to question whether an additional emergency supplemental will even be necessary, especially if tight controls are implemented on funding recovery programs for Katrina victims.
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), whose home state was hit hard by Katrina, cautioned his colleagues in an emotional appeal to be careful about appearing insensitive to the plight of those whose lives were disrupted by Katrina. “It’s not all about the money,” the Mississippi Republican said on Tuesday of his closed-door speech to the Senate GOP Conference. “We have to make sure we are aware that a lot of people have lost everything. Nobody is saying don’t worry about how we spend federal funds. Be we need to get people back on their feet first.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.