House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) named 11 GOP lawmakers yesterday to the remnants of what Congress's Republican leaders originally had intended as a bipartisan investigation, conducted jointly by the House and Senate, into flaws in the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.
With Democrats boycotting the probe and the Senate Republican leader acquiescing to their complaints by not appointing any members, the select committee is slated to begin work today as a creation solely of House Republicans.
The committee's chairman, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), said that the panel plans Tuesday to question Michael D. Brown, who resigned as the discredited director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency last week, three days after the Bush administration stripped him of responsibility for overseeing relief work in the stricken Gulf Coast area.
Davis said the committee would begin its work by hearing from the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center. He said its first task would be "establishing the timelines -- when everybody knew what they knew" about the approaching storm. He said the committee would next examine faulty communications.
In naming the members, Hastert said, "The American public, especially the people of the Gulf region, deserve to know what happened in the early days of the storm."
The members are an eclectic group, including lawmakers with oversight responsibility, expertise in appropriations, responsibility for overseeing FEMA, and close relationships with the House GOP leadership. They include Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.), a moderate, to Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (Wis.), known for his strong style. Only one, Rep. Charles W. "Chip" Pickering Jr. (Miss.), comes from any of the states devastated by the storm.
The pared-down committee is forming two weeks after Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) announced they had agreed to undertake a bipartisan, bicameral select committee.
House and Senate Democrats swiftly derided the idea, saying that a GOP-led Congress could not be trusted to carry out a thorough investigation of mistakes by a Republican administration. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) yesterday renewed the Democrats' calls for an independent commission, similar to the one that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- a proposal that polls suggest most of the public supports.
"The speaker is not listening to the American people," she said. "They do not want a partisan whitewash of what went wrong in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. . . . I will not appoint any Democrats to participate in this sham."
Davis said, "This isn't some partisan coverup." He dispatched letters to three House Democrats from affected states who have signaled they may be willing to participate; one of them, Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), plans to attend today, an aide said. Davis urged the Senate to collaborate.
A separate investigation into Katrina has been started by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, whose chairman, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), has said she would be reluctant to coordinate with the House select committee unless it is bipartisan.
Meanwhile, President Bush has announced that his homeland security adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, will direct an internal investigation into the federal response to Katrina, as well as coordinate the administration's response to Hurricane Rita.
Davis said the House investigation would proceed, with or without Democrats. "You can't sit and wait. You have to move ahead. . . . We have to have hearings while evidence is fresh."