WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) intends to seek as much as $40 billion to cover the next phase of relief and recovery from Hurricane Katrina (search), congressional officials said Tuesday as leading lawmakers and the White House pledged to investigate an initial federal response widely condemned as woefully inadequate.
One week after the hurricane inflicted devastation of biblical proportions on the Gulf Coast, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid (search), D-Nev., said the total tab for the federal government may top $150 billion. At the same time, senators in both parties said they suspect price gouging by oil companies in the storm's aftermath.
Relief and recovery needs will be the "number one priority for the foreseeable future," pledged House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) of Texas as Congress convened after a five-week vacation.
Republicans and Democrats alike heaped criticism on the Federal Emergency Management Administration (search), the government's front-line responder agency for national disasters. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi told Bush to his face at the White House that he should fire the agency's director, Michael Brown. "The president thanked me for my suggestion," the California Democrat said afterward.
Stung by earlier criticism, Bush invited congressional leaders to the White House for an afternoon meeting, then dispatched several Cabinet officials to the Capitol to brief rank-and-file members. "Bureaucracy is not going to stand in the way of getting the job done for the people," Bush told reporters.
House and Senate committee chairmen announced investigations, while House Speaker Dennis Hastert suggested a bipartisan House-Senate probe. "We're ready to get going," he said.
Some Democrats called for an independent commission along the lines of the one appointed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "There was nobody in charge at the federal government, there was nobody willing to take responsibility to work with the state and local officials," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York said at a news conference.
Whatever their plans, lawmakers took largely symbolic actions on their first day in the Capitol since the storm — the Senate expressing condolences to victims of the storm and the House observing a moment of silence.
Bush did not specify at the meeting with congressional leaders how much he would request for additional relief. A $10.5 billion down-payment approved last week is "being used at an increasingly rapid pace. We're readying a second installment now and a precise number is currently being determined," said Scott Milburn, an Office of Management and Budget spokesman.
The congressional officials who said the total could be as high as $40 billion from Congress did so on condition of anonymity because it was not clear when the formal announcement would be made. Reid said he expected a request in the range of $40 billion to $50 billion.
The unprecedented scope of the destruction swiftly shot relief and recovery items to the top of Congress' autumn to-do list.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., put off planned votes on elimination of the inheritance tax, a GOP priority, and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the need to address hurricane-related difficulties would further postpone action Bush's long-delayed call for overhauling Social Security.
At the same time, Frist, like Bush, made clear Republicans want John Roberts confirmed as the nation's 17th chief justice in time to take his seat before the Oct. 3 opening of the Supreme Court's term. Hearings on Roberts' nomination open next Monday.
Individual lawmakers outlined numerous suggestions to ease the burden caused by the storm and ensuing New Orleans-area flood that left an unknown number of people dead, uncounted thousands of homes and businesses damaged or destroyed and drove hundreds of thousands of Americans from their homes. Many are poor and normally receive welfare. Others are sick and are now cut off from their health care and prescription medication. Still others are school-age and will suddenly find themselves enrolled in classrooms not built to accommodate them.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said efforts now focus on rehabilitating the battered coast and helping displaced residents find housing, education and jobs.
"I think what we have to offer the people of all of the afflicted areas now is hope," Chertoff said after briefing senators. "There is a tremendous amount of work to do."
Grassley, R-Iowa, said he favors loan relief for farmers whose grain harvest may not reach market on schedule because of difficulties at the New Orleans port. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., called for help with Medicaid costs in states that take in storm victims. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said he favors tax relief for airlines hard hit by a spike in fuel costs.
In the House, DeLay said the GOP leadership hoped to have legislation on the floor this week dealing with Pell grants, reducing red tape for the newly unemployed and making it easier for FEMA to transfer money to private organizations.
The storm disrupted oil drilling and distribution along the Gulf Coast, and the Senate Energy Committee convened a hearing into the rising cost of gasoline. Republicans and Democrats said they suspect price gouging in the aftermath of the storm, but said the government lacks the ability to adequately investigate or prevent such abuses.
"There are growing concerns that oil companies are making too much in profits at the expense of consumers," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the committee.
Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., criticized FEMA for not assisting non-Red Cross shelters housing thousands of evacuees in his northwest Louisiana district. "There's no excuse not to have people available for these kinds of needs for these poor people who have been displaced from their homes," he said in a telephone interview from Shreveport.
Pelosi's criticism was far sharper.
"The people of the Gulf region were struck by two disasters. First was the hurricane and then the failure of the federal government in time of great need," she said... "The buck stops at the president's desk. The president said he's going to lead the investigation into what went wrong. He needs to look only in the mirror."
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who lost a home in the storm, said he hoped investigations would not interfere with recovery. "Please, please, my colleagues, let's don't try to fix blame right now. There'll be a time for that. Let's fix the problems that we've got to deal with now."