The Senate, by a unanimous vote, approved $51.8 billion in additional funding for relief efforts on the Gulf Coast, on the same day that Vice President Cheney toured the region that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Cheney, dispatched by President Bush to troubleshoot hurricane relief efforts on the Gulf Coast, expressed strong support today for a joint House-Senate inquiry proposed by Republican leaders and defended putting political appointees in charge of organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Bush, meanwhile, declared Sept. 16 a national day of prayer for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Addressing hurricane victims directly in a televised speech, he formally announced steps to put money in the hands of homeless survivors and make it easier for the displaced to collect federal benefits.
The House passed the additional relief dollars by a vote of 410-11 earlier today. Today's aid package, combined with $10.5 billion approved by Congress last week, brings the total federal contribution so far to $62.3 billion.
"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.
But even as Congress moved to meet the funding needs, Republicans and Democrats bickered over a GOP-proposed joint investigation of the government's preparation for and initial response to the catastrophe.
Democrats charged that the investigating committee would not be truly bipartisan and was intended instead to whitewash the Bush administration's handling of the disaster.
While the politicians wrangled, the National Weather Service upgraded another storm, Ophelia, to hurricane status in the Atlantic off Florida. The weather service issued a tropical storm warning for the east coast of Florida from Sebastian Inlet northward to Flagler Beach.
Ophelia, now the seventh hurricane of the season, is stalled about 70 miles east-northeast of Cape Canaveral, Fla., the service said in a 5 p.m. EDT advisory. It is currently a Category 1 hurricane with winds near 75 mph, and forecasters say it may move slowly northeastward and gain strength over the next 24 hours.
Speaking to reporters while touring a devastated neighborhood in Gulfport, Miss., Cheney struck an upbeat note about the response he has seen so far to Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane slammed into the Gulf Coast last week, leaving New Orleans inundated with polluted floodwaters and causing extensive damage along the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama.
In the brief speech in Washington with Cabinet members looking on, Bush said the government is working to provide $2,000 in emergency relief to each household displaced by the hurricane. He told affected families that by registering for the $2,000 grant, "you will begin the process" of acquiring longer-term assistance for eligible households.
He said a second step would make it easier for people who have lost documents to receive federal benefits administered by the states, including Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps, foster care, unemployment compensation and job training.
To honor the memory of those killed by the hurricane and the flooding it caused, Bush said, he has declared Sept. 16 as "a national day of prayer and remembrance." He asked the nation to pray "with hope for a brighter future, and with the humility to ask God to keep us strong so that we can better serve our brothers and sisters in need."
With the death toll from the disaster still unknown, authorities increasingly were turning to the grim task of recovering bodies from flooded buildings in New Orleans, where the mayor has estimated that thousands of people have drowned.
Officials in New Orleans said more than 30 bodies have been removed from a nursing home in St. Bernard Parish, east of the city. Police said between 40 and 50 other people have been rescued from St. Rita's Nursing Home, which was surrounded by about three feet of water yesterday when workers began removing the bodies.
Maj. Gen. Ron Mason, commander of National Guard troops in key areas of New Orleans, said the troops will not use force to evacuate remaining residents, but will rely on local police, Washington Post staff writer Jacqueline L. Salmon reported.
"I do not believe you will see National Guard troops actually physically forcing people to leave their homes," said Mason. "We think that this is a police effort," he said. "The local police are in charge."
Denise Bottcher, a spokeswoman for Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D), said the governor believes no force is necessary because about 1,500 people a day are leaving their homes voluntarily.
Cheney, accompanied by his wife, Lynne V. Cheney, and by officials including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, was visiting New Orleans this afternoon.
In Gulfport, Cheney met local officials and toured a heavily damaged neighborhood. "I think the progress we're making is significant," he said. "I think the performance, in general, at least in terms of the information I've received from locals, is definitely very impressive."
As Cheney was speaking to reporters, a passerby shouted obscenities at him. Cheney dismissed it, saying it was the first negative reaction he had heard on his trip.
Earlier, as Cheney walked along a debris-strewn Gulfport street, resident Lynn Lofton called his visit "a media opportunity that is a complete waste of time and taxpayer money," adding, "They should have been here last week."
Cheney praised the performance of Chertoff, saying, "I've got enormous confidence in the secretary, as does the president." But he made no specific mention of embattled FEMA director Michael D. Brown, whose disaster relief credentials have been widely questioned and who has come under intense criticism in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Asked whether the nation is best served by having political appointees in positions such as FEMA director, Cheney said, "Most of government runs on the basis of a combination of civilian leadership that's elected and career professionals that fill the jobs underneath them. And we're always trying to strike the right balance. But I think generally that overall principle has served us well as a government over the years. You've got to have people at the top who respond to and are selected by presidents, and you pick the best people you can to do the jobs that need to be done."
Cheney also said that a proposal by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to form a joint bipartisan investigative committee "makes sense." He said the committee would avoid the problem of "so many different jurisdictions on Capitol Hill," with multiple House and Senate panels wanting to investigate the response to Hurricane Katrina.
"What you can't do is have a process go forward in a way that interrupts our basic ability to do what needs to be done down here," Cheney said. If one committee is created with participation from both parties, he said, "there's no reason in the world they can't do an effective oversight job, why they can't do the after-action review that we all agree is necessary and important and report back in a timely fashion. I think it makes good sense. I think that's the way Congress ought to carry out its responsibilities, and we support it."
In Washington, however, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rejected the proposed committee, which she said she first learned about from news reports and believes will not be effective or bipartisan. She said she will not appoint any Democrats to the committee.
"I'm very disappointed" in the move by Frist and Hastert, Pelosi told reporters. "I will not be making appointments to a committee that is not bipartisan." She said there have been no discussions with her about making sure membership on the committee is evenly divided between the parties and about giving the panel adequate subpoena power.
"Let's not have a charade," Pelosi said. "Despite all the talk about bipartisanship, they have just on their own initiative put forward a proposal that will result in a whitewash." She added, "This Congress has consistently avoided any oversight of the administration, and they want to follow the same formula." She said Republican leaders have "made their position clear; they will continue to protect the administration."
Pelosi also refused to back away from her sharp criticism of Bush yesterday following a meeting with him. She said the president appeared "oblivious" and "in denial" about the federal response to Katrina and this was "dangerous for the country." Pelosi told reporters today, "The reason I said that is because I was being polite."
The California Democrat said of the new relief funding package, "Hurricane victims need money, but they also need some real leadership and some real accountability." She called on Bush to immediately "appoint a competent director at FEMA . . . so we can move on in a better way to meet the needs of the American people."
In separate remarks to reporters, Hastert reacted sharply to Pelosi's comments about Bush.
"We have a lot of work to do," he said. "People can join in and help get the job done, or some people can stand aside and criticize.
"We can't be distracted by partisanship, by finger-pointing, by name-calling," Hastert added. "We have work to do. The American people expect us to get this work done. Certainly the victims of this catastrophe expect us to get this work done, and that's exactly what this Congress is going to do."
Frist, appearing with Hastert, said, "Things did not go perfectly. We all know that." But he said the fault extends beyond the federal government.
"A lot of initial criticism was at our federal government," Frist said. "I think increasingly people see that there was a system-wide failure at the local level, at the state level and at the federal level."
He said the proposed bicameral, bipartisan committee will "get to the bottom" of what went wrong.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) said he was happy that Bush has sent Congress another emergency funding request for hurricane relief and that Democrats support it. "But it doesn't do enough," he said. "It has serious flaws. Just throwing money isn't the answer. . . ."
Reid complained that more than 90 percent of the funding goes to FEMA.
"After everything that has happened with FEMA, is there anyone, anyone, who believes that we should continue to let the money go to FEMA and be distributed by them?" he asked.
"The president's request fails to get families what they need now," Reid said. "His proposals won't assure that survivors get health care, housing or education. That takes legislation. We're prepared to move forward with a better plan that bypasses FEMA and gets the survivors the resources they need and they must have."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.