Congressional Republicans had hoped to devote this fall to tax cuts, private investment accounts for Social Security and tilting the judiciary further to the right. Instead, they are appropriating massive sums for the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort and retreating, at least for now, from plans to eliminate the estate tax.
As a day of dueling speeches and news conferences made clear yesterday, the two parties will battle intensely to influence the inevitable investigations into the serious shortcomings in the government's response to the catastrophe in New Orleans and its environs. While Republicans have more members in the House and Senate, Democrats say they have more credibility and enthusiasm for the government services that Katrina's wreckage will require: urban renewal, aid to the poor and robust social programs.
With the midterm congressional elections 14 months away, both parties see high stakes in where blame will eventually fall for the government's lagging response to Katrina. Yesterday, congressional Republicans tried to get a head start, announcing the formation of an investigative commission that they can control.
They rejected Democratic appeals to model the panel after the Sept. 11 commission, which was made up of non-lawmakers and was equally balanced between Republicans and Democrats. That commission won wide praise for assessing how the 2001 terrorist attacks occurred, and for recommending changes in the government's anti-terrorism structure.
House and Senate GOP leaders announced the "Hurricane Katrina Joint Review Committee," which will include only members of Congress, with Republicans outnumbering Democrats by a yet-to-be-determined ratio. The commission, which will have subpoena powers, will investigate the actions of local, state and federal governments before and after the storm that devastated New Orleans and other portions of the Gulf Coast.
"Congress is actively responding to the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina," House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said in a statement released during an appearance attended only by Republicans, after an all-GOP planning session.
The announcement came a day after President Bush said his administration would conduct an investigation into the Katrina response and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) ordered the House Government Reform Committee to suspend plans for immediate hearings. Democrats denounced both actions, and they called the Frist-Hastert plan inadequate. They vowed to push their own proposals for helping the storm's victims and investigating government agencies' responses.
A Republican-led Congress cannot be trusted to make a thorough investigation of a Republican administration, said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "Democrats strongly prefer that the response to Hurricane Katrina be investigated by a commission of independent experts like the 9/11 commission," he said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the new commission "is not truly bipartisan, will not be made up of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, cannot write legislation and will not have bipartisan subpoena power."
From the moment the dimensions of New Orleans' devastation became apparent, Democrats and some nonpartisan groups have said the Bush administration's response was slow, uncertain and unenergetic. Some said the tragedy required a strong and visceral devotion to social services, which are dearer to Democrats than to Republicans.
"It involved uncovering a whole body of more than 100,000 poor people in Louisiana," said University of Maryland political scientist Ronald Walters. "It underscored that we have not been successful in dealing with poverty. . . . The evacuation plan assumed people had cars and financial means to get out, and it was an ideological blind spot."
Some prominent Republicans made remarks that fed Democrats' accusations. Asked about the disaster last weekend on Pittsburgh's ABC affiliate WTAE-TV, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) suggested a law-and-order approach to evacuations. "There may be a need to look at tougher penalties on those who decide to ride it out and understand that there are consequences to not leaving," he said. He later said he was not referring to the one-fifth of people in the disaster area who reportedly did not own automobiles.
In an interview last week with an Illinois newspaper, Hastert questioned using federal dollars to rebuild New Orleans, suggesting that a lot of it should be bulldozed, but later said the city must be restored in some fashion.
Congressional Republicans -- many of whom face reelection next year -- have taken steps in the past two days to show a determination to help the storm's victims without jettisoning their traditional support for private industry. Hastert said the House will rewrite federal rules so that welfare recipients who have been displaced can continue to get assistance checks and so that college students who get federal Pell Grants are allowed to keep that aid, even if their universities have shut down. But some Democrats said Republicans do not understand and appreciate the plight of poor and minority Americans -- who tend to vote heavily Democratic. "The powerful winds of this storm have torn away the mask that has hidden from our debates the many Americans who are left out and left behind," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in a Senate speech yesterday.
Staff writer Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.