President Bush yesterday said he takes personal responsibility for the federal government's stumbling response to Hurricane Katrina, as his White House worked on several fronts to move beyond the improvisation of the first days of the crisis and set a long-term course on a problem that aides now believe will shadow the balance of Bush's second term.
"Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government," Bush said at a White House news conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. "And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility. I want to know what went right and what went wrong."
The first major public event in the White House effort to take control of the post-Katrina political and policy agenda will occur tomorrow night in a prime-time speech to the nation. The president will deliver it from the flood region on his fourth trip there since the hurricane struck.
Bush already has dispatched his top strategist, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, and other aides to assemble ideas from agencies, conservative think tanks, GOP lawmakers and state officials to guide the rebuilding of New Orleans and relocation of flood victims. The idea, aides said, is twofold: provide a quick federal response that comports with Bush's governing philosophy, and prevent Katrina from swamping his second-term ambitions on Social Security, taxes and Middle East democracy-building.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a Bush ally, said the recovery effort provides conservatives with an unusual opportunity to test ideas that have been hard to sell on a national scope, including vouchers to cover education for dislocated students and tax incentives for business investment. "There are a whole host of ideas being looked at," Kyl said.
In what may become the next major post-Katrina policy, the White House was working yesterday to suspend wage supports for service workers in the hurricane zone as it did for construction workers on federal contracts last week, administration and congressional officials said. This possible move, described by administration officials as being under debate, already provoked preemptive Democratic protests.
At tomorrow's speech, the president is to outline his vision more comprehensively than he has to date. A top aide said he will stress that New Orleans officials will dictate how the city will be rebuilt, but will also make plain the reconstruction should reflect his vision of government -- including reducing regulatory obstacles and emphasizing entrepreneurship over big government, the aide said. He will discuss plans to provide health care, education, jobs and housing assistance to flood victims, another aide said.
With some Republicans frustrated that the federal government essentially cut a $62 billion blank check for phase one of the recovery effort, the Bush administration and congressional GOP leaders are working on proposals to encourage business investment in the devastated areas and to test conservative ideas such as portable benefits for evacuees who want to reestablish in new locales, low-tax business zones and waived environmental regulations.
GOP officials involved in the effort said more than $200 billion could be spent on Katrina-related projects, most of it over the next two years. They project that hurricane-related spending will trail off in the final two years of the Bush presidency, allowing him to say he met his stated goal of cutting the deficit in half by 2009. "You're a fiscal conservative until you get hit with a natural disaster," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
Behind the scenes, the president's inner circle is working with more than a dozen new task forces, run through the domestic policy counsel, to solicit ideas from federal agencies and outside groups such as the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute. Several aides said agency officials are under pressure to provide estimates of what money their agencies need, as well as ideas for solving the myriad problems the relief effort presents. Advisers have studied housing issues, for instance, trying to determine the best way to build temporary accommodations for relief workers and construction workers and avoid unintentionally encouraging people to never return.
Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua B. Bolten is overseeing the largest-ever federal expenditure on a natural disaster, but officials said he is relying on a beefed-up inspector general's office at the Department of Homeland Security to monitor how the money is spent. At a private House Republican leadership meeting yesterday, several lawmakers expressed concern about a repeat of the waste and fraud that many believe took place with the budget for rebuilding Iraq, according to a participant.
Republicans are lining up behind plans to use vouchers to help displaced students find new schools, including private ones, and a mix of vouchers and tax breaks to help flood victims pay for health care expenses, from insurance to immunization. A draft Senate GOP plan for post-Katrina policy includes both ideas, according to Republicans who have read the document.
Grover Norquist, a Rove ally who runs Americans for Tax Reform, is among those lobbying the White House to suspend wage supports for service workers in the hurricane zone.
Last week, Bush issued an executive order lifting the Davis-Bacon rules mandating that construction workers on federal contracts be paid the average wage in a region. The White House argued the regulations were slowing reconstruction and raising federal costs.
Now Labor Department and White House officials are examining a similar move for service workers covered by the McNamara-O'Hara Service Contract Act, which extended prevailing wage rules to service workers. Administration officials are concerned that workers on demolition and debris-removal jobs could protest that even with construction wage supports lifted, they should be paid prevailing wages because their work is more service-related than construction-related.
Any move to lift service wage supports would elicit protests by labor unions and their Democratic allies. The Depression-era Davis-Bacon Act includes a provision allowing its suspension for natural disasters. The Service Contract Act does not, and its suspension may be unprecedented, labor experts say.
Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.