WASHINGTON – A House committee began hearings on Thursday to investigate the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina (search), drawing some Democrats to the proceedings despite an ongoing scuffle between House leaders.
Rep. Tom Davis (search), R-Va., chairman of the committee, urged members to begin proceedings despite partisan bickering over the review process.
"The task before us is considerable. The American people want the facts," Davis said in his opening statement. "It's about getting the facts, not getting even."
Even though most Democrats avoided the hearing for fear it would be biased, Davis made no disguise about his disappointment with the federal government's response to Katrina.
"Even armed with solid, advance information on Katrina's severity, the response of local, state and federal officials was largely abysmal," he said.
Democrats have made repeated calls for an independent commission to review recovery efforts on the storm-stricken Gulf Coast.
Republicans said they were going to find out what went wrong and what went right.
"We're going to let the facts go where they go," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.
President Bush recently appointed Fran Townsend (search), the White House homeland security adviser, to investigate the response. Separately Thursday, Bush made plans to fly to Texas on Friday to review the preparations for Hurricane Rita, expected to hit the coast by Saturday.
"We have resources there to help the federal, state and local officials to respond swiftly and effectively," said Bush. He has pushed the federal government to pre-deploy assistance in advance of Rita.
Hospital beds, rescue teams and evacuation buses were sent to Texas ahead of the storm. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has activated 5,000 National Guard troops and an additional 1,300 were returning from Louisiana. The hurricane has been dubbed an "incident of national significance," which puts in place Homeland Security emergency plans
"We want to make sure we're ready," R. David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said. "We'd rather preposition more assets than we need than not have enough."
Preparations for Rita may be an expensive lesson learned from Katrina. In the case of Katrina, more than 1,000 residents along the Gulf Coast died and the federal government was not able to rescue New Orleans residents until well after the storm passed.
That led to calls on Capitol Hill for an investigation into the slow response. The House voted last week 224-188 for a bipartisan House panel, but the party-line vote prompted Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to refuse to name members of her party to the committee.
Nonetheless, Democratic Reps. Charlie Melancon of Louisiana and Gene Taylor of Mississippi testified at the hearing.
In his opening statement, Melancon said that he wanted to help, but that he supported fellow Democrats' calls for an independent commission.
"This should be a non-political, non-partisan process," Melancon said.
Melancon and Taylor sent Bush a letter requesting an independent commission on Thursday.
"We applauded your decision after September 11 to create an independent commission to honor the families of the victims. We believe that the victims of Katrina deserve no less than the victims of September 11," the letter said.
That letter echoed remarks made on Wednesday by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who also suggested an independent panel to review the preparations for and response to Katrina. Blanco said the commission could resemble the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, commonly known as the Sept. 11 commission.
"Only an independent, nonpartisan commission investigation that commands full support from the executive and legislative branches will accomplish what we need: a thorough, comprehensive review which is only concerned with getting to the truth," Blanco said.
On Thursday, Pelosi also repeated calls for an independent commission.
"I support an independent commission, not a sham investigation by the Republicans in the House of Representatives," Pelosi said.
On the Senate side, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is working separately to review the government's response.
The select committee was originally slated to include lawmakers from both chambers of Congress, but since the Senate failed to pass legislation that would allow its members to participate and no House Democrats are on the panel, the committee is now made up of just 11 House Republicans.
Next week's scheduled hearing will include testimony from former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown.
A Dollar Sum to Clean Up
While federal, state and local officials have been blamed for their failings to prepare for and respond quickly to the hurricane, Congress is working quickly to provide post-Katrina relief.
Both chambers quickly approved $62 billion for rescue, recovery and rebuilding in the Gulf Coast region. Congressional leaders were told earlier this week that $15 billion had already been spent.
Some lawmakers estimate the total federal dollars needed to rebuild the region will reach at least $150 billion. Federal assistance is likely to only go higher once Hurricane Rita makes landfall.
On Wednesday the House approved a $6.1 billion tax relief package to aid Gulf Coast residents and encourage businesses to rebuild in the region. The Senate passed the bill on a voice vote later on Wednesday and sent the bill to Bush.
The bill provides tax breaks and establishes special rules for the earned income tax credit and child tax credit for victims that lost jobs or were separated from their families.
Other provisions of the bill waive taxes imposed when debts are forgiven, create a $500 tax deduction for people who allow refugees to stay in their homes for free for at least two months and allow unreimbursed casualty losses to be written off.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.