WASHINGTON – Cities are at risk because the Bush administration is too preoccupied with its political problems to properly prepare for another natural disaster or terrorist attack, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid told mayors from around the country Friday.
"Any one of your cities and towns could be the next New Orleans," Reid said at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "The federal government owes it to you and your citizens to be prepared the next time disaster strikes."
The Nevada lawmaker said efforts to find out what went wrong after Hurricane Katrina illustrate how the administration's priorities are wrong.
Governments at the federal, state and local level have been harshly criticized for a slow response to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated coastal areas of Mississippi and Louisiana and flooded New Orleans. Yet the White House has been slow in helping Congress investigate what happened at the federal level, Reid said.
Reid said the investigation must be completed — not to fix blame but to learn what needs to be done to avoid a repeat of the post-Katrina problems.
President Bush on Thursday defended the administration's level of cooperation, citing the thousands of administration documents given to congressional investigators. Responding to complaints that more information could be provided, Bush said that it would have a "chilling effect" on the ability of presidential advisers to speak freely.
Reid said the poor choices of the administration and Republicans in Congress are also evident in steps securing the nation after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Efforts to spend more money for emergency workers in cities were rejected as well as efforts to restore money for extra police, he said.
Responding to Reid's criticisms, the Republican National Committee assailed the Senate Democratic leader.
"Harry Reid's accusation that President Bush is playing politics with national security may earn him the title of hypocrite-in-chief," said Tracey Schmitt, an RNC spokesman.
Reid also said many steps recommended by a commission examining national security after the terror attacks have not been taken, such as strengthening security for ports and rail transportation. He questioned spending billions on Iraq and tax breaks for the wealthy rather than for security improvements in cities.
"If we can spend $2 billion every week to protect the Iraqi people, we can do more to protect our people at home," Reid said.
Mayors also heard from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who said Bush budget cuts are shortchanging cities on homeland security. She told reporters later the Bush administration and Republicans are trying to paint Democrats as weak on defense, especially in the debate over domestic eavesdropping done without a warrant.
"Democrats want the president and the Congress to have the best possible intelligence, but we can do it under the law," the California lawmaker said. "This isn't about whether you want to protect the American people or not, this is about whether you want to obey the law."
The RNC is running an ad over the weekend in Reid's home state of Nevada and on national cable channels criticizing his opposition to elements of the Patriot Act. Reid said the RNC ad buy was only $5,000 in Las Vegas.
He said if Republicans are serious "let them spend some real money on it." Republicans declined to say how much they are spending on the ad.