Democrats Want Independent Panel on Readiness

Times Staff Writers

The political struggle unleashed in Washington by the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina intensified Wednesday, with the congressional Republican leadership promising a joint House-Senate investigation into what went wrong as Democrats demanded the creation of an independent commission of inquiry.

Senate leadership aides said the joint panel would have the power to subpoena witnesses, but few other details were offered on the scope of its investigation or when it would begin.

Leaders of both parties said their primary focus was still aiding victims of the disaster, and they promised quick action on a $51.8-billion emergency aid package the White House proposed Wednesday. Congress earlier approved $10.5 billion in aid.


But partisanship was in full view on Capitol Hill, with Democratic leaders intensifying their criticism of the administration’s handling of the crisis as they sensed an opportunity to paint as inept the Republicans who control every lever of government in Washington.

Sharply criticizing the president, Sen. Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said an investigation into the government’s response should ask, among other things, whether Bush’s absence from Washington -- he was vacationing at his Texas ranch when the hurricane struck -- impeded the federal government’s response to the disaster.

“How much time did the president spend dealing with this emerging crisis while he was on vacation?” Reid asked in a letter to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“Did the fact that he was outside of Washington, D.C., have any effect on the federal government’s response?” Reid asked.

Among other Democrats who criticized the administration was Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who is expected to be a presidential contender in 2008.

Making the rounds of morning news shows, Clinton called for an independent commission to investigate the government’s disaster response.

“I don’t think the government can investigate itself and I don’t think the government should be distracted from the main job, which is the recovery process that needs to go on,” Clinton said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

She said she would not have appointed Michael D. Brown, the embattled head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to his position.

Responding to the criticism, GOP congressional leaders moved to take control of a political situation that threatened to derail Bush’s second-term legislative agenda and to put at risk Republicans running for reelection in vulnerable districts next year.

Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) told reporters that their chambers would work together to determine why the response to Hurricane Katrina by all levels of government appeared to be inadequate.

No Democrats were present at the announcement.

“We all agree that in many areas, the official response to Hurricane Katrina was unacceptable at the local, state and federal levels,” Frist said.

He said senior senators would serve on the committee, which would have until Feb. 15 to present its findings to Congress.

“America deserves answers,” Frist said.

In a statement shortly after the announcement, Reid said, “Democrats strongly prefer that the response to Hurricane Katrina be investigated by a commission of independent experts like the 9/11 commission.”

Having a Republican administration investigated “by a Republican-controlled Congress is like having a pitcher call his own balls and strikes,” Reid said.

One senior GOP leadership aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Congress had a responsibility to “step up and face our responsibilities, not to shirk them” by shifting an investigation to an outside body.

Republican congressional leaders took a similar position after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Bush eventually appointed an independent commission, however, when faced with persistent public pressure from families of the victims who insisted on a thorough review of the government’s actions before, during and in the wake of the attacks.

One Senate Republican aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, predicted that public outrage over the government’s perceived failures in responding to Hurricane Katrina would eventually force Congress and the administration to agree to an independent inquiry.

“The phones in our offices have been ringing off the hook,” with constituents expressing shock and anger at the government’s response, said the aide. “I’m sure everyone else’s offices are experiencing the same thing.”

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), who served as the co-chairman of the independent 9/11 commission, said he agreed that public pressure might induce Congress to form a similar panel to investigate the hurricane response.

“There are many parallels between 9/11 and Katrina, I think, many parallels with regard to the response,” Hamilton said. “We asked the question, repeatedly: Who is in charge? The same question arises here.”

Hamilton also said that joint inquiries by the House and Senate “are not easy to conduct.”

The rules in the Senate create a more collegial institutional culture than the bare-knuckle partisanship of the House, Hamilton said.

In a statement, Collins said her Senate committee would hold an oversight hearing next week to “provide the foundation for work to be completed by the joint committee.”

Collins will chair the joint committee for the Senate, but the House leadership has yet to pick its chairman, a senior House Republican leadership aide said.

Congress plans to turn its attention today to the administration’s request for more emergency money for Hurricane Katrina victims.

White House budget officials said that the emergency spending measure should meet relief needs for at least the next few weeks, and that they expect to ask for “substantially more” to aid reconstruction of the Gulf Coast. They declined to estimate what the hurricane ultimately would cost.

“This will not be the last request,” White House budget director Josh Bolten said in a telephone briefing to reporters.

In a letter to Congress, the White House said that “more than 75,800 response, rescue, recovery and law enforcement personnel are working around the clock to bring critical aid and support to the Gulf Coast region.”

Funds were being spent at a faster rate than anticipated -- as much as $2 billion a day over the weekend -- but officials said they expected the rate to vary as the relief effort continued.