US President George Bush's promise to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast "higher and better" has triggered a wave of anxiety among conservatives in his own party, who are shocked at the expansion of the federal role in disaster relief.
On Friday, Bush led the country in a day of prayer for the victims of Hurricane Katrina in Washington's national cathedral, declaring: "The destruction of this hurricane was beyond any human power to control, but the restoration of broken communities and disrupted lives now rests in our hands."
But his ambitious pledge the night before to lead "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen" has dismayed many of his own followers.
The promise was made in a dramatic prime-time address to the nation from a floodlit Jackson Square in the heart of New Orleans, where President Bush attempted to rebuild his credibility as a strong leader. In doing so, he apologized once more for the bungled, delayed response of the federal government.
"Four years after the frightening experience of Sept. 11, Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency," he said, adding that he was personally "responsible for the problem, and for the solution."
Bush presented the solution in terms of an array of far-reaching government programs. He proposed the creation of a "Gulf opportunity zone" along the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coast, in which rebuilding would be encouraged by tax incentives and subsidies.
Secondly, worker recovery accounts would be set up giving adult evacuees US$5,000 each to help them find work.
He also proposed an "urban homesteading act" providing federal land for displaced people to build new homes.
Senior members of the president's own party had voiced doubts over the wisdom of rebuilding a city like New Orleans, which is mostly below sea-level, but Bush shrugged off the concerns, declaring: "This great city will rise again."
The speech was aimed at reassuring Hurricane Katrina's refugees, although fewer than half said they intended to return home, according to a poll published yesterday by the Washington Post.
The promise of arguably the biggest federal government project since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal triggered a reaction among fiscal and "small-government" conservatives.
"This is a shocking expansion of the federal role in disaster relief," said Stephen Slivinski, director of budget studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "The fear is these programs that are supposed to be temporary will find a permanent home in the budget."
The broad and deep tax cuts of the Bush administration's first term coupled with the Iraq war drove the federal budget from a surplus to a US$412bn deficit in 2004.
Higher tax revenues brought White House predictions it would drop this year, but that hope has been dashed.
Some Republicans are voicing their unease. Senator Tom Coburn declared: "I don't believe that everything that should happen in Louisiana should be paid for by the rest of the country."
So far, Slivinski said, Republican rebels in Congress could be counted "on two hands and one foot" but he predicted that as congressional elections approach next year concern will rise as leaders face the rank and file, who still believe in small government and balanced budgets.