WASHINGTON – Congress' agenda for the remainder of the year has changed dramatically in the last few days, as lawmakers vowed to help Gulf Coast hurricane victims and senators faced a confirmation decision for a new chief justice — rather than an associate justice of the Supreme Court (search).
The House and Senate met briefly last week, interrupting an August recess to approve $10.5 billion for Hurricane Katrina (search) victims. But that was only a down payment in the overwhelming task of recovery from one of the country's worst disasters. The long-term effort to aid recovery begins after lawmakers return Tuesday.
When Congress paused as it does every August, senators contemplated Judiciary Committee hearings and floor debate on the nomination of John Roberts (search) as an associate justice. The death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist (search) on Saturday, and President Bush's subsequent nomination of Roberts for chief justice, raised the stakes.
In a short time, Bush promised, he also will send the Senate a nominee for an associate justice to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (search).
Parts of the planned schedule will be set aside, said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., including legislation on the estate tax.
Congressional leaders were meeting with Bush at the White House on Tuesday, and senators were to get a briefing from Cabinet secretaries later that day on the Gulf Coast recovery efforts.
Frist left no doubt in a news conference Monday that lawmakers would be consumed with helping Katrina victims and conducting hearings on the slow federal response.
He said there would be "finger pointing where it's deserved," and recognition that "mistakes have been made."
Frist said the Senate will take some action immediately, considering legislation that would allow federal judges in the devastated areas to relocate and continue their work.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said last week the $10.5 billion money bill was only the first step toward a "comprehensive, long-term response to the Katrina disaster." He promised Congress would provide more humanitarian aid, combat gasoline price gouging, provide assistance to businesses and the unemployed, rebuild infrastructure and utility systems, and help local law enforcement.
"Make no mistake, this $10.5 billion is initial relief," DeLay said.
Both the House and Senate were planning hearings to examine the soaring gasoline prices triggered by Hurricane Katrina and the country's current oil and gas supplies.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee planned to hear the Energy Department and private energy analysts at a hearing Tuesday afternoon and on Thursday examine the country's refining capacity. One issue will be to find out what the government can do to spur construction of new refineries and whether refining capacity is too heavily concentrated in the Gulf region.
The hurricane knocked out nine refineries and two major gasoline pipelines, for a time shutting down or greatly reducing the flow of gasoline to markets in the East and Midwest.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said a hearing Wednesday will examine complaints about price gouging as gasoline costs at the pump soared well above $3 a gallon across much of the Midwest and East, jumping overnight from 50 cents to almost $1 a gallon in some cases.
Echoing DeLay's comments, Frist said the Senate would provide victims assistance including housing, unemployment benefits and health care; restore electricity, highways and oil production; and stimulate economic growth by considering measures for job creation and small business loans.