Democrats sharpened their criticism of the Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina yesterday, refusing to participate in a Republican-controlled investigative panel and displaying a photo in the Senate of the president strumming a guitar the day New Orleans was inundated.
The day's events, which included a near-lionization of the only Democratic senator from the hard-hit states, left little doubt that political reaction to the catastrophic storm will be dramatically more partisan than was the response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"We are reaching a perfect political storm," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) told reporters as lawmakers appropriated another $51.8 billion for hurricane relief but differed bitterly on how to figure out what went wrong.
Congressional Democratic leaders said they will not name members to a House-Senate commission that Republicans announced Wednesday to investigate local, state and federal government actions before and after Katrina lashed the Gulf Coast Aug. 29. Democrats said the proposed panel is unacceptable because they were not consulted about its formation and because GOP lawmakers would outnumber Democratic members.
"As it is currently described, I will not appoint members to it," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "The only way to ensure that all levels of our government are held accountable to the people is to take this process out of the hands of politicians with a vested interest in the outcome."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said: "If we're ever going to protect the American people, we must have an outside independent committee. Let's not have a charade about oversight."
Pelosi and Reid said Congress should appoint a panel of non-lawmakers modeled on the Sept. 11 commission that wrote an extensive report on the 2001 terrorist attacks. Congressional Republicans said they modeled the commission on House and Senate panels formed in 1986 to investigate the Iran-contra scandal during the Reagan administration. Democrats controlled both chambers then, and they outnumbered Republicans on the two committees, which were eventually merged.
"It looks like the Democrats want to play partisan political games at an important time," said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). He urged Pelosi and Reid to change their minds but said the panel would go forward without Democrats if necessary.
In the Senate, Democrats rallied around Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who returned to Washington after 10 days of highly visible and often emotional appeals for aid for her beleaguered constituents. Landrieu, who grew up in New Orleans, praised Republican colleagues from Louisiana and Mississippi but ripped the Bush administration for the federal response to Katrina.
The cost to rebuild "will be staggering," Landrieu said in a Senate speech attended by two dozen Democratic colleagues, a rare sight in the usually empty chamber. "But it will pale in comparison to the staggering incompetence of this national government [which] is responsible." When she finished, many colleagues hugged and kissed her, including Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, a state also ravaged by the storm.
At times, the debate was theatrical. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) displayed a poster-size photo of Bush playing a guitar handed to him during a tour of a San Diego military base Aug. 30, after broken levees had caused New Orleans to flood.
"The president was enjoying the day, he was strumming a guitar," Lautenberg said. "I don't deny him the pleasures of office, but people were drowning."
When aides to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) attacked Pelosi's response to the investigative commission, they illustrated it with an e-mailed photo of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury intersection, associated with the hippies of the 1960s.
Groups and strategists on the left and right, meanwhile, debated the wisdom of the two parties' actions. Some liberals cheered Pelosi and Reid for refusing to join the investigative panel. Others warned Democrats to offer solid alternatives when they criticize.
"These debates on blame alone won't get us anywhere with most people," said Laura Nichols, senior vice president of the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. "Complaints about 9/11 investigations fell on deaf ears."
The Republican National Committee sent allies a list of "talking points," including: "It's disappointing that while President Bush has focused his administration's entire efforts towards saving lives and helping the victims of Katrina, there are those who are using this tragedy to score cheap political points."
Republicans criticized an online petition from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that combined a fundraising appeal with a call to oust the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. After an inquiry from the Associated Press, the DSCC removed the page and said any money it generated would go to the American Red Cross.