NEW ORLEANS – Now that the $62 billion down payment is on its way, Gulf Coast lawmakers and their staffs are turning their attention to what comes next.
Is a financial bailout of New Orleans next on the federal agenda because Hurricane Katrina will dry up most sources of local tax revenue? What about rebuilding the Gulf Coast? Is a new reconstruction agency needed?
Could the depression-era Works Progress Administration (search) be replicated in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to put storm victims back to work rebuilding their communities?
The emergency money does nothing to address the massive rebuilding faced by residents. But quick approval of the money does buy Congress some time to make a more thorough assessment of the damage and to develop a more comprehensive relief package.
"This effort is going to evolve and the most important thing is just to move it forward," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (search), D-La. "We don't know the answers today. We don't even know all the questions to be asked."
Lawmakers probably will pass a third emergency aid bill soon, but only after regular hearings in which federal agencies will have to justify their spending needs. For the first $62 billion, Congress just fell in line with the Bush administration's request.
Congressional delegations in the three states are working on legislation to eliminate red tape that might slow or block aid from getting out.
The House last week, for example, approved a bill by Rep. Bobby Jindal (search), R-La., to waive a requirement that would have forced students whose studies were interrupted by the hurricane to begin repaying their federal college loans.
Congress also enacted legislation allowing the federal courts to operate outside their normal jurisdictions.
But most of the discussions have centered on three far-reaching issues: the reconstruction of the hundreds of destroyed homes and businesses; the financial crisis in New Orleans; and restoring the Louisiana coast to lessen the impact of future hurricanes.
"The federal government needs to think innovatively," Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss, said last week. "What do we want to do to avoid this sort of problem in the future and how can we do whatever we do better than we have done it?"
Congressional aides say research is under way on the idea of a new reconstruction agency, along the lines of the Tennessee Valley Authority (search).
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (search) normally would oversee reconstruction efforts after a hurricane. But the agency's slow initial response to Katrina and the unprecedented devastation make it more likely that lawmakers will look elsewhere.
"Former approaches may not work in this set of circumstances," said Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La. "We may have to think outside the box. We may want to create some overarching entity to direct the efforts."
McCrery said there almost certainly will be some type of jobs program for hurricane victims that is patterned after the New Deal's WPA.
"I think that's going to happen," he said. "The plan is to create temporary jobs for the cleanup and getting locations ready for reconstruction and rebuilding. And then, even in the rebuilding process, there may be jobs created with a preference given to displaced persons from those areas."
New Orleans was set to send out property tax assessments this month. With the city vacated for who knows how long, both property tax and sales tax revenues will dry up, forcing the city and school board to stop paying their employees or face bankruptcy, unless there is a federal bailout.
There were only 11 no votes in the 435-member House and none in the Senate last week when the second emergency spending bill was approved. But Gulf Coast lawmakers are worried that support in Congress may erode as the unprecedented scale of the reconstruction and financial problems facing the area becomes clearer.
"There is a tremendous concern about what comes after this," said Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Ala.
"Last week was really just a Band-Aid to get us through October. There are many people that are genuinely worried about how far we can go in an attempt to get the Gulf Coast back on its feet without setting a dangerous and unaffordable precedent for future disasters," he said.