Fri, Sep 09, 2005 - Page 6 News List

US Congress considering huge hurricane aid bill

COSTLY EFFORT The package, which would include assistance to the tune of US$1 billion a day, was described as just one installment to help victims of Hurricane Katrina

AP , WASHINGTON

As recovery efforts continue along the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Alabama National Guardsman Specialist Jonathan Hall with the 214th Military Police Company shows Sa Nguyen how to properly eat MREs outside a convenience store yesterday in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

PHOTO: AP

The US Congress is considering an emergency aid package that would spend well over US$1 billion a day during the next month on housing, clothing and other recovery needs for Hurricane Katrina victims.

The House of Representatives, as early as yesterday, was expected to approve the US$51.8 billion spending bill that the Bush administration, under attack for its response to the devastating Gulf Coast storm, described as the latest installment in the costly relief effort.

"We will in fact need substantially more" money, said White House budget director Josh Bolten, estimating the funds would cover expenses for "a few weeks."

Prospects were more uncertain in the Senate, where Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of hurricane-ravaged Louisiana threatened to hold out for more funding. Republicans said that any attempt to amend the bill could lead to delays in getting the measure to President George W. Bush for his signature before current funds run out.

The US$10.5 billion aid hurricane relief that Bush signed into law last Friday was expected to run out yesterday evening, budget aides said.

Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne Cheney, were headed to the Gulf Coast to talk to local officials, meet with emergency first responders and tour disaster sites in Gulfport, Mississippi, New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The spending bill was being debated against the backdrop of partisan sparring over an unusual joint House-Senate congressional committee to investigate the government's readiness and response to Katrina's devastation that covers what Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska described as twice the size as Europe.

The panel, which will be chaired by Senator Susan Collins, a Republican for Maine, and a Republican House lawmaker yet to be named, must issue a report by Feb. 15.

"Americans deserve answers," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, told reporters.

Democrats pushed for an independent panel to investigate the disaster, similar to the 9/11 Commission that examined government missteps leading to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

"An investigation of the Republican administration by a Republican-controlled Congress is like having a pitcher call his own balls and strikes," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, a California Republican, said the House could act as soon as Thursday to help get money and other assistance to hurricane evacuees by cutting through federal red tape, including relaxing rules for welfare funds. In recent days, the government spent more than US$2 billion a day as it paid out several big-ticket items such as contracts to provide housing.

A sliver of the new funding -- US$1.4 billion -- would help the Pentagon pay for the deployment of military personnel to the storm-damaged region. More than 63,000 military active duty and National Guard troops so far have been sent to the Gulf Coast.

But the bulk of the money would go into a Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief fund that is offering debit cards of US$2,000 per household to victims evacuated from homes in Louisiana and Mississippi. FEMA anticipates handing out 320,000 cards, at a cost of US$640 million.

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