Debate on Response to Katrina Creates Partisan Divide

In Arabi, La., near New Orleans, Harold Hansford puts flood-damaged Christmas decorations in front of his house, wrecked by Hurricane Katrina. Storm relief has become another partisan issue.
In Arabi, La., near New Orleans, Harold Hansford puts flood-damaged Christmas decorations in front of his house, wrecked by Hurricane Katrina. Storm relief has become another partisan issue. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 26, 2005

Where rebuilding New Orleans and Gulf communities was seen as a national priority in the days after Hurricane Katrina hit -- most tangibly when lawmakers approved $62 billion in aid just two weeks later -- Congress's race to complete a new round of reconstruction aid this month became fodder for politics-as-usual in the capital, and in increasingly strong tones.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) lumped Congress's slow rebuilding response into an attack on a Republican "culture of corruption and cronyism, coverup . . . and incompetence," which she later said "caused so much more loss of life and damage in the Gulf Coast."

Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) faulted President Bush's efforts to restore housing, small businesses, health care, education and minority voting rights to storm victims. Pelosi applied the word "failure" or some variant to the administration 44 times in an 11-page report.

Republicans have responded in kind. Condemning a Democratic push to subpoena top administration aides for e-mails as part of a House investigation into the Katrina response, Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) said, "Let's pierce the political veil here. There should be no doubt that the purpose of this motion" is to protect Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) "to try to somehow shift all this back over to the White House."

Behind the rhetoric of blame is a reality reflected in polls. Democrats and many independents see the rebuilding of New Orleans and reconstruction of the Gulf Coast region as an important or top priority. For Republicans, it is less clear-cut.

In some ways, the nation's response to Katrina is cleaving the public down partisan lines as a domestic issue, just as Iraq has on foreign policy. Both issues have become polarizing, rather than unifying, issues for the country, said Glen Bolger, a pollster for Hill Republicans.

According to a poll this month for the Hotline political newsletter, which asked whether Congress should tackle Iraq or the Katrina recovery first in 2006, Americans wanted the Gulf Coast rebuilt by 58 percent to 28 percent.

Democratic and independent voters generally agreed on addressing Katrina's problems, while self-identified Republicans chose Iraq, 46 percent to 37 percent. "No matter what the Bush administration does, the public is never going to believe they're doing everything they can in the Gulf," said Hotline editor Chuck Todd. "That's the box the administration is in."

The reconstruction fuses economic and domestic issues on which Democrats traditionally fare better than Republicans -- including jobs, education, health care and civil rights -- much as the GOP gains in debates over war and terrorism.

"This is the ultimate mommy party issue, if you believe that Democrats are the mommy party and Republicans are the daddy party," Todd said. Bush and the GOP have trouble dealing with the Katrina debate, just as Democrats have had less credibility on national security, he said.

Partisan political calculations are also shaping a clash of visions of how New Orleans should be rebuilt, said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, who heads the Theodore Roosevelt Center at the city's Tulane University.

Bush's decision "to keep Katrina under the radar screen" and "dribble out aid" is driven by a fear of overseeing a costly foreign war and a massive domestic initiative simultaneously, Brinkley said, just as Vietnam and the Great Society program consumed the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.

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