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 www.fema.gov.
"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."
Bush has scrapped his schedule to focus on hurricane relief after being criticized for reacting too slowly to Katrina's devastation. A Pew Research Center survey found that 67 percent of Americans think Bush could have done more to respond to the storm. The survey placed his overall job approval rating at 40 percent, down 10 points since January. A poll by Zogby America recorded its lowest-ever approval rating for Bush, 41 percent.
In the latest effort to demonstrate commitment to improving the federal response, Bush dispatched Vice President Cheney to the region and first lady Laura Bush to other states housing evacuees. Cheney personally encountered some of the hostility directed at the administration. As he spoke with reporters on a street in Gulfport, Miss., a young man shouted at him. "Go [expletive] yourself, Mr. Cheney," the man yelled twice. Cheney smiled slightly but did not respond.
In his first tour of the damage, Cheney offered an upbeat assessment of what he called the "very impressive" current response efforts. "I think the progress we're making is significant," he said. Cheney also endorsed the Republican inquiry plan instead of the independent commission proposed by Democrats.
The details of yesterday's spending package offer a glimpse of the impact Katrina will have on taxpayers. Nearly half of the money -- $23.2 billion -- will go directly to as many as 1.1 million households in the form of housing grants and other assistance. Such aid will be capped initially at $26,200 per household.
Already, the government has spent $3.3 billion to snap up 200,000 trailers, mobile homes and recreational vehicles from showrooms across the country for the homeless survivors. Clayton Homes Inc., a Tennessee-based manufactured-home company, is trying to get 100 homes a day from its showrooms to a FEMA staging area, said Chris Nicely, the company's vice president for marketing. "We did make a profit on it," he said of the order. "It's hard to say how much."
More business will be coming soon. Included in yesterday's legislation is an additional $1.6 billion for 100,000 housing units. The package also includes $7.65 billion to repair public schools, nonfederal roads and bridges, water facilities, government buildings, parks, and public utilities. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will receive $3 billion to remove mountains of debris. A total of $1.9 billion will be used to buy ice, water, food, tents and other materials for victims and relief workers.
The bill stirred concerns in both parties about possible fraud. Under one provision, procurement officers can use government credit cards to make purchases costing as much as $250,000, without competitive bidding and without considering small-business and minority-owned-business allotments.
Such authority has traditionally been limited to $2,500 under normal circumstances and to $15,000 in emergencies. Lawmakers gave $15 million to the Homeland Security inspector general, but that did not mollify critics.
Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) signed a letter yesterday opposing raising the limit. "We should not allow the immediate needs of this disaster to trump the need for oversight and accountability for the spending that will occur on these purchase cards," they wrote. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) agreed: "The vast majority of federal employees are honest, upstanding people, but the ability to buy up to $250,000 in any single purchase is a great temptation."
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said that "we've got safeguards" to ensure that the money is spent appropriately. "Sure, there is going to be waste in money," he acknowledged. "You can't deal with 5 million people and not have some waste in money. But the bulk is going to go to the people and the property that deserve it."
Staff writers Jonathan Weisman and Griff Witte contributed to this report.