The Senate voted along party lines yesterday to reject creation of an independent panel to investigate the government's fumbling response to Hurricane Katrina.
The proposal, from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), would have established a panel similar to the one that examined the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The partisan wrangling came amid rising calls from members of both parties to change how the nation manages major disasters.
Senior Republicans proposed such critical fixes as streamlining how the president can order the U.S. military to enforce law and order, and funding compatible radio systems for use in emergencies.
The need for new radios was a major finding of the Sept. 11 commission, whose former members met yesterday and decried that, more than four years after the terrorist attacks, the federal government's command systems, plans and laws remain uncoordinated and unready for a catastrophe such as Katrina.
"There are distinct similarities between Katrina and 9/11, between what was known beforehand and how the government responded to pending dangers," said Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (Hawaii), echoing fellow Democrats' calls for an outside inquiry. "In the four years since 9/11, we should have done a better job in preparing to protect Americans."
"It is Congress's responsibility," countered Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio). "By golly, we're going to get into the bowels of the Department of Homeland Security and make sure the next time around, it will be able to get the job done."
The House and Senate GOP leadership plan to form a joint congressional investigative committee with a Republican majority. A House vote is scheduled for today. Democrats oppose the move.
The stalemate over the makeup of the panel muted the first hearing in Congress into the Katrina response led by the Senate Committee for Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Chairman Susan M. Collins (R-Maine) promised "to lay bare the painful evidence of human errors that have added to the damage."
Witnesses included former California governor Pete Wilson, in office for the 1992 Los Angeles riots and 1994 Northridge earthquake, and Patricia A. Owens, who was mayor of Grand Forks, N.D., during the 1997 flood there. They emphasized the need for recovery efforts and called for a single federal "czar" to take charge.
Collins and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) will call for building unified radio systems for responders in an upcoming emergency hurricane spending bill, atop $62.3 billion Congress has already spent, Collins spokeswoman Jen Burita said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) wrote Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld last night urging a legal review of the use of active-duty troops in domestic emergencies and announced his intent to rename a key martial law statute called the Insurrection Act.
Warner said renaming the law -- used by presidents to fight the Civil War and to integrate schools in Arkansas and Alabama -- would ease political barriers to the presidential exercise of such authority. White House aides cited such concerns in deciding not to federalize state National Guard units to do police work after the storm hit.
"The President should not have to worry about misperceptions by the public based upon outdated wording that does not accurately describe what the armed forces may be doing in a particular emergency," Warner wrote.
Military officials resist federalizing troops because of concerns that the action could appear as an occupying force within U.S. borders. Soldiers, Marines and sailors who were sent to help in the wake of Hurricane Katrina were prevented from taking over police functions.
The National Guard -- under control of the governors -- can do police work such as stopping looters and keeping the peace.
Not having a centralized command structure for all federal authorities and the military at the outset caused significant confusion, military commanders said. A lack of communications -- something the military might have been able to supply if called up -- exacerbated problems.
At their meeting yesterday, former members of the Sept. 11 commission offered blistering criticism and issued a report finding that the government has made little or no progress in enacting reforms.
The panel, now operating as the nonprofit 9/11 Public Discourse Project, focused on congressional failure to provide a dedicated spectrum of radio frequencies for use by emergency responders. Such frequencies could have saved lives in New Orleans by allowing police, firefighters and troops to communicate more directly, the commission said.
"It is the same thing we saw on 9/11," said Thomas H. Kean, the former Republican New Jersey governor who chaired the commission, adding: "If Congress does not act, people will die."
Staff writers Dan Eggen and Thomas E. Ricks contributed to this report.