WASHINGTON – Gulf Coast lawmakers scrambled Tuesday to gain as much Hurricane Katrina aid as possible before Congress goes home, including a $35 billion proposal to repair levees, support schools and rebuild the devastated region.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., threatened to try to keep the Senate in session until more funding was approved. Congress' GOP leaders hope to finish business and leave for the year by next week.
"Congress needs to act before going home for Christmas," Landrieu said. "Many people in Mississippi and Louisiana don't have any homes to go home to. And unless we really accelerate the pace of the relief and restoration efforts, the situation is going to get a lot worse before it gets better."
She added: "I'm prepared to keep people here as long as it takes. If I could keep them here all the way through Christmas, I will."
So far, Congress has provided $62 billion for the battered Gulf states. The fund was for immediate recovery costs like clearing debris, temporary housing and direct aid to victims, though President Bush has proposed using $17 billion of it to repair damaged facilities.
The two states' governors — Democrat Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana and Republican Haley Barbour of Mississippi — lobbied lawmakers Tuesday for more help. Blanco will testify Wednesday with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, another Democrat, to a special House committee investigating the government's response to the Aug. 29 storm.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., is pushing for a $35.5 billion plan, which would include the $17 billion Bush proposed in October. Landrieu said the money could be reallocated from the $62 billion Congress provided in September, about half of which remains unspent.
Mississippi alone is seeking $30 billion in aid, said Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., estimated total recovery costs would probably exceed "a couple hundred billion dollars."
Melancon, a member of the House panel investigating the Katrina response, is pushing to subpoena the White House, the Pentagon and Mississippi and Alabama officials for thousands of documents detailing the government's action on the storm. Blanco has already handed over more than 100,000 documents, but Barbour has said that his administration didn't write any e-mail detailing response missions because the state was without electricity during the storm.
Barbour should at least be able to hand over documents written before Katrina hit and after electricity was restored, Melancon said. In a memo Tuesday to other lawmakers on the panel, Melancon also summarized documents that he said show the White House already knew a New Orleans levee had been breached when Bush and other senior administration officials said the region initially appeared to have "dodged a bullet."
Melancon said the administration may not have fully understood the consequences of the levee breach. But, he said, "it is also possible that top administration officials publicly contradicted these internal reports to justify the slow federal response."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the administration received "lots of information, sometimes conflicting information" about levees throughout the day.
"We were asking a variety of sources on the ground for first-hand information," Perino said. "We understood that the situation in New Orleans was a major emergency and were continually demanding information."
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said lawmakers intend to finish a bill fulfilling Bush's call for tax breaks within a special business zone to rebuild commerce in the Gulf Coast.
"We will not leave here without a substantial Katrina tax package," Frist told reporters.
The House and Senate have passed separate but similar packages with about $7 billion in tax incentives and tax-exempt bonds targeted to the region.
On another front, the Justice Department said federal authorities have charged 143 people in fraud schemes related to Katrina. Most of those cases involve the $2,000 check and debit cards that FEMA made available to hurricane victims.