Congress Approves $51.8 Billion For Victims

New Orleans drug enforcement agents pry open a door as they look for hurricane survivors in the city's hard-hit Ninth Ward.
New Orleans drug enforcement agents pry open a door as they look for hurricane survivors in the city's hard-hit Ninth Ward. (By Shannon Stapleton -- Reuters)
By Peter Baker and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 9, 2005

President Bush and Congress moved on multiple fronts yesterday to rush fresh relief to people afflicted by Hurricane Katrina, vowing to get cash directly into the hands of victims while enacting an unprecedented spending package to feed and house evacuees, rebuild schools and bridges, and begin clearing out the vast rubble.

Just a day after Bush's request, the House voted 410 to 11 to approve $51.8 billion for relief, and the Senate followed suit hours later 97 to 0, bringing the total approved in the past week to $62.3 billion, with more to come. With his poll approval ratings crumbling further amid a political backlash, Bush tried to unify the country by declaring next Friday a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance.

"The responsibility of caring for hundreds of thousands of citizens who no longer have homes is going to place many demands on our nation," Bush said in a televised statement hours before he signed the spending legislation last night. "We have many difficult days ahead, especially as we recover those who did not survive the storm."

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said yesterday's prompt legislative action "illustrates one thing: This Congress is serious about doing everything we can to help local, state and federal officials respond to this crisis."

As the authorities moved through flooded New Orleans to force out the remaining residents and collect an unknown number of bodies, the bipartisan consensus on dispensing federal dollars did little to obscure the growing political rift over how to investigate what both sides consider the bungled initial response to one of the worst natural disasters in the nation's history. Congressional Democrats rejected a Republican plan for a GOP-led joint House-Senate panel to look into the response.

"Despite all the talk of bipartisanship, they have just, on their own, unilaterally, put forth a proposal that will result in a whitewash of what has gone on here," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). She added that she will not appoint any Democratic members to such a "charade" panel.

The two parties likewise split over the details of the spending package they approved yesterday. Democrats said the Republican leadership wrote billions of dollars in checks without considering whether the package offers the proper help -- and proper accountability. "The unfortunate truth is, Mr. Speaker, this compliant Republican Congress has acted more like an adjunct to this administration than a co-equal, independent branch of our government," said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

Beyond the spending package, the House approved a series of other measures to help people displaced by the hurricane, such as accelerating welfare money to affected states and allowing college students to keep federal financial aid even if their schools are now closed. But Democrats were blocked from adding provisions to restructure the Federal Emergency Management Agency, heavily criticized over its handling of the disaster response. Under the Democratic proposals, the agency would be detached from the Department of Homeland Security and its director would be required to have previous experience managing disasters.

On the final votes, the only dissenters were nearly a dozen House Republicans, some of whom expressed concern about accountability for the huge expenditures.

Trying to outdo the Republican rush of aid, Senate Democrats yesterday introduced a separate, more expansive package that would, among other things, extend Medicaid to survivors without health insurance, grant emergency rent vouchers to those who lost homes, and provide funds to schools that take in evacuees.

Even before the votes, Bush summoned television cameras to address hurricane victims directly, promising to provide every household $2,000 as soon as possible to tide it over and to expedite government benefits such as Medicaid, unemployment checks, food stamps, mental health services and nutritional supplements without the traditional bureaucratic requirements. The president told viewers to call 800-621-FEMA or, if they have Internet service, to go to .

"We have much more work to do," Bush said. "But the people who have been hurt by this storm . . . need to know that the government is going to be with you for the long haul."

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