WASHINGTON – Congress rushed to approve $51.8 billion in emergency aid for victims of Hurricane Katrina (search) on Thursday, and President Bush (search) pledged the government would cut red tape to provide $2,000 each in disaster assistance to families and to make sure they continue receiving Medicaid, food stamps and other federal benefits.
Flanked by members of his Cabinet, Bush asked for patience on the part of storm victims, and declared a national day of prayer and remembrance for Friday of next week.
He spoke shortly before the House voted 410-11 to approve a large installment of recovery and relief funds. Senate approval was expected later in the day.
On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders said they intended to boycott a proposed Republican-led congressional committee that is to investigate the administration's readiness and response to the storm.
"I do not believe that the committee proposed by Speaker Hastert and Senator Frist is in the best interest of the American people," said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. Both he and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said they would not appoint members to the panel as currently contemplated.
Bush said he recognized that many displaced people lacked proper identification or even a change of clothes, and said the government would "cut through the red tape" to ensure that they receive the help they need. He encouraged evacuees to register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (search) to receive the immediate $2,000 in assistance and then longer term aid.
"We have much more work to do," the president said. "But the people that have been hurt by this storm know that — need to know that the government is going to be with you for the long haul."
Bush said that more than 400,000 families have registered with FEMA but tens of thousands more people still need to be processed.
"The responsibility of caring for hundreds of thousands of citizens who no longer have homes is going to place many demands on our nation," the president said. "We have many difficult days ahead, especially as we recover those who did not survive the storm."
Bush said the government also would relax requirements so that evacuees relocated far from home could receive state-administered federal benefits, such as Medicaid, welfare, child care, mental health and substance abuse treatment, food stamps, housing, foster care, nutrition for poor, pregnant women, school lunch and unemployment checks. He said states that are housing evacuees should "not be penalized for showing compassion" — meaning the government would reimburse them.
The developments unfolded as the Labor Department reported that an estimated 10,000 workers who lost their jobs because of the storm filed for unemployment benefits last week, the first wave of what likely will be hundreds of thousands of such claims.
The storm has uprooted tens of thousands of people, including an estimated half-million residents of New Orleans and its immediate surroundings. Many of them are now in temporary facilities in Texas, and the government faces the challenge of making sure they continue to receive the services that have been theirs at home.
Passage of Bush's call for $51.8 billion in funding was a certainty in Congress, although Reid was critical of the administration's plans for running billions of dollars through the widely criticized Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Administration officials said the money was needed by day's end, and one official said government costs were running as high as $2 billion a day in the wake of the hurricane that spread destruction along the Gulf Coast and led to flooding that left large portions New Orleans under several feet of water.
In addition to afternoon appearance, Bush dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney to the stricken region, and met with Republican congressional leaders at the White House as he struggled to shed the criticism that has followed him and his administration since the storm struck.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said afterward there had been a "a systemwide failure" in the response to the storm. Citing problems are the local, state and federal levels, he said, "We will get to the bottom of that" in a congressional investigation.
Democrats, many of whom favor an independent commission, sounded skeptical.
With Republicans holding a majority in both houses, Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., announced plans Wednesday for a bipartisan panel to be drawn from the House and Senate, with more Republican members than Democrats.
Pelosi called that "the partisan proposal. ... House Democrats will not participate in a sham that is just the latest example of congressional Republicans being the foxes guarding the president's hen house."
In Gulfport, Cheney inspected damage, said there was much recovery work to be done but added that he was struck by a "very positive, can-do" attitude.
With the death toll mounting across the Gulf Coast, the White House would not estimate how many people had died.
"It's going to be a very ugly situation when those flood waters recede and we start to go in and recover bodies and we look at the additional public health issues that need to be addressed," McClellan said.