WASHINGTON – Louisiana's senior senator on Sunday escalated the Democrats' rhetoric against the Bush administration's hurricane response, accusing the White House of a "full court press" to blame state and local officials for the initial sluggish rescue effort.
The government's emergency managers came under fire from the lone black senator, Democrat Barack Obama (search), who said they were clueless about the inner-city in New Orleans when they failed to plan for the evacuation of poor people.
The White House sought to deflect criticism ahead of President Bush's third trip to the stricken Gulf Coast, saying blame could be assessed later.
"It's not the time for blame. It's the time for helping the people on the ground that have been severely impacted by Hurricane Katrina (search)," White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said. "We'll continue to provide aid and assistance to those who have been severely impacted."
Sen. Mary Landrieu (search), D-La., said officials at all levels eventually would share blame for an inadequate response, but she cited only the administration for the finger-pointing that followed the killer storm.
"While the president is saying that he wants to work together as a team, I think the White House operatives have a full court press on to blame state and local officials whether they're Republicans or Democrats. It's very unfortunate," she told CBS' "Face the Nation."
She said Washington was obligated to support local and state officials, "particularly in times of tragedy and stress, not to pile on them, not to make their suffering worse."
Sen. David Vitter (search), R-La., said on "Fox News Sunday" he would give "the entire big government organized relief effort a failing grade, across the board." But, he added that state and local governments shared in the blame, too.
Landrieu's office said the senator based her accusation in part on comments by the Homeland Security chief, Michael Chertoff, (search) and by administration allies on Capitol Hill, who cited the responsibility of state and local officials in planning for and responding to disasters. She also cited several news stories about a White House campaign to deflect criticism.
Obama was asked on ABC's "This Week" whether there was racism in the lack of evacuation planning for poor, black residents of New Orleans (search). He said he would not refer to the government response in that way, but said there was a much deeper, long-term neglect.
"Whoever was in charge of planning was so detached from the realities of inner city life in New Orleans ... that they couldn't conceive of the notion that they couldn't load up their SUV's, put $100 worth of gas in there, put some sparkling water and drive off to a hotel and check in with a credit card," Obama said.
"There seemed to be a sense that this other America was somehow not on people's radar screen. And that, I think, does have to do with historic indifference on the part of government to the plight of those who are disproportionately African-American." He added that "passive indifference is as bad as active malice."
The House Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., proposed an independent commission to watch for contractor scams in hurricane repairs.
"Already we have seen despicable stories of those trying to profit off desperate Gulf Coast residents," she said. Her plan would investigate waste and fraud as soon as contracts are awarded.