WASHINGTON – While survivors of Hurricane Katrina (search) struggle to rebuild their lives, officials in Washington are trying to figure out how best to pay for long-term recovery in the region while scoring political points at the same time.
Congress has so far approved $62 billion for rescue, recovery and rebuilding in the Gulf Coast region, and on Tuesday, congressional leaders were told that $15 billion has already been spent. Officials believe it's possible the federal tab will run at least $150 billion or higher.
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The source of the extra funding remains to be found. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) of Texas says tax hikes aren't the answer because they won't help residents rebuild their homes or businesses, or find jobs.
"Raising taxes will not help create any of those things but will instead guarantee that the region's economic troubles spread to the rest of the country. We cannot allow that, and the president has already said he won't," DeLay said.
But Democrats are arguing for a repeal of some tax cuts approved by Congress and other past budget decisions.
"This is not the time for tax cuts for the rich, it's not the ... time for cutting Medicaid. It's not the time for cutting student aid," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (search) of Nevada.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) of Tennessee said Republicans desire to keep from forcing future generations to pay for Katrina and called on his colleagues to find places where cuts could be made.
"We're going to look at a lot of the issues that have been discussed — offsets, potential across-the-board spending cuts. (We'll be) looking at legislations we passed in recent weeks, months and even years as to where we can appropriately cut," Frist said.
But Sen. John Kerry (search), D-Mass., is one Democrat who perhaps is seeing Hurricane Katrina as both a watershed event and a political opportunity. Speaking at Brown University on Monday night, Kerry attacked the Bush administration for its lackluster response to the storm and then made a broader political statement, in which he mockingly used President Bush's nickname for now-resigned FEMA chief Michael Brown (search).
"Brownie is to Katrina what Paul Bremer is to peace in Iraq; what George Tenet is to slam-dunk intelligence; what Paul Wolfowitz is to parades paved with flowers in Baghdad," Kerry said. "The bottom line is simple. The 'we'll-do-whatever-it-takes' administration doesn't have what it takes to get the job done."
In the meantime, Frist has given way to Democats and given up on a plan for a special bipartisan House-Senate committee to investigate what went wrong in the government's response to Katrina. The move could make way for separate House and Senate probes since the House last week passed legislation forming a congressional panel to investigate the slow response.