WASHINGTON – Louisiana's bipartisan front in seeking federal help to recover from Hurricane Katrina (search) crumbled Friday as the state's senators — a Democrat and a Republican — fought over whether their local governments should have to repay federal loans to keep essential services operating.
Since Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29 and left New Orleans flooded, Democrat Mary Landrieu (search) and Republican David Vitter (search), along with their House colleagues, have put aside political differences and united in seeking hundreds of billions in federal aid.
But with their local governments unable to pay essential workers and Congress leaving Friday for a 10-day recess, Landrieu and Vitter parted ways over how best to meet those immediate needs. The result was a rare public split on the Senate floor between the two over an issue of major importance back home.
The fight was the latest sign of how bipartisan support for responding to Katrina has eroded. The two parties have also battled over how deeply to cut spending to pay for Katrina aid.
Vitter proposed a bill to steer up to $1 billion in loans to local governments for essential services, using money already approved by Congress for hurricane relief. Landrieu pressed for a broader package, totaling $15 billion, and objected to a provision in Vitter's bill that would prohibit the federal government from forgiving the loans.
That provision amounted to discrimination, she said, because no other local governments in similar situations have been denied the possibility of loan forgiveness. And the victims of that unfair treatment, she argued, already have suffered from the federal government's torpid response when Katrina first hit.
Taking her battle to the Senate floor, Landrieu stalled action on the defense bill for a day and kept the Senate in session until 2 am Friday. At one point, Vitter confronted her on the floor and asked her point blank if she was holding up action on his bill, which he said had the backing of all Senate Republicans.
"I've not yet expressed an objection but I'm considering it," Landrieu replied.
Referring to each other as "the junior senator" (Vitter) and "the senior senator" (Landrieu), the two argued for several minutes, with Vitter at one point refusing to let Landrieu speak while he controlled the floor. The argument ended only when Vitter walked out of the chamber.
Landrieu relented later Friday and agreed to let the Senate approve the Vitter bill. She said it was the only way Louisiana's local governments were going to get the money to stay afloat over the next few months, even though she insisted the state was being discriminated against by the GOP's "tightfisted money policies."
Vitter said he supported Landrieu's broader aid package but was focused on crafting a proposal that could be enacted before the recess. And he made it clear he didn't appreciate Landrieu's opposition.
"When others have been filibustering and making speeches and delaying, particularly in the last 24 hours, I tried to do something constructive," he said.
"I'm not going to respond in kind to him," Landrieu said later.
She said she and Vitter had "fought together" until he chose not to do battle with House Republicans over their insistence that the loans could not be forgiven.
"I'm not going to criticize him for that decision," said Landrieu, who had campaigned against Vitter last year by calling him a "puppet for Washington Republicans."