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Flood Drives New Agenda in Capitol

Times Staff Writer

Responding to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, congressional leaders announced Monday that they were retooling their legislative agenda to give top priority to storm relief and recovery measures.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he would cancel a vote scheduled for this week on repealing the estate tax -- a controversial measure that Democrats had decried as inappropriate relief for the wealthy at a time when so many poor storm victims are suffering in the South.

Frist also announced the postponement of confirmation hearings on the nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. to the U.S. Supreme Court, which had been scheduled to start today. Roberts, initially Bush’s pick to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, was tapped Monday to succeed Rehnquist, who died Saturday night, as chief justice.

Frist said the decision to postpone the hearings’ start -- until at least Thursday, but not beyond Monday -- was to honor Rehnquist and not a response to some Democrats’ contention that more preparation time was needed now that Roberts was being considered for the court’s top post. Rehnquist will lie in repose at the Supreme Court today and Wednesday morning. His funeral will take place Wednesday afternoon, followed by burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

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These agenda changes come on the eve of Congress’ return today from a monthlong recess -- a return that will be marked by a striking change in the political climate.

Republicans left town at the end of July buoyed by successes in passing energy, highway and trade legislation and eager, upon their return this month, to tackle other priorities, such as overhauling Social Security and ending the estate tax.

But as GOP lawmakers reconvene this week, their agenda and mood will be darkened by sobering realities: a vast swath of the U.S. ravaged by Katrina, skyrocketing gas prices, the death of the chief justice, spreading turmoil in Iraq.

In an unusual Labor Day news conference, Frist declared that Congress’ new priority would be funding relief efforts for hurricane victims and reconstruction of the battered Gulf Coast. House and Senate leaders called Congress back into session last week to approve $10.5 billion to aid hurricane victims. Frist said another round of funding would be provided “when needed,” but he did not say when or how much that would be.

House and Senate leaders of both parties are to meet with Bush this afternoon to discuss the situation. The entire Senate will be briefed by Cabinet officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. And the Senate will pass a measure designed to help the storm-ravaged region reestablish its court system. The bill, which may also clear the House today, would allow district, circuit and bankruptcy courts to relocate and operate outside their jurisdictions.

Wednesday, Frist said, the Senate will honor Rehnquist and adjourn for his funeral. Then it will take up a routine appropriations bill that could be a vehicle for additional funding for small business loans and for state and local law enforcement agencies.

Frist has asked committee leaders to recommend measures that could be approved to help storm recovery, possibly including emergency aid for housing, unemployment insurance, healthcare, protection against price gouging and tax incentives for job creation.

In postponing the scheduled vote on the estate tax, Frist did not say when the Senate would return to it, but he denied acting in response to political pressure from Democrats.

Earlier in the day, the Senate’s Democratic Party leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, issued the latest in a series of demands that Frist cancel the vote on the ground that it would be “inappropriate and insensitive” to hurricane victims.

House leaders did not announce any immediate changes in their legislative agenda, although an aide said such decisions were likely to be made today.

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Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.


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