Government Administers Wildfire Relief; SCHIP Returns

As the government attempts to carefully respond to the California wildfires, the SCHIP bill makes its way BACK to the desk of President Bush for a likely veto. In this week's Political Chat, pollster Ron Lester and Tara Setmayer, a conservative commentator and political strategist, offer analysis.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

President Bush heads straight to the scene of disaster instead of just flying over. There is no getting around the comparison of the response to the wildfires out West versus the hurricane in the Gulf states. We'll talk about that with the Barbershop guys and our political analyst. Also today, award-winning artists who also want to be voices for peace; from Washington's National Cathedral we hear from rocker Graham Nash and blues man Keb Mo'.

But first, although fires are still burning out West, firefighters have gained control largely over the 16 blazes that have devastated acres of homes and agricultural areas.

But as President Bush and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger share praise over an effective response, some wonder whether those lessons were learned at the expense of residents of the Gulf Coast. And the House takes up a children's health insurance program again. Is this taking a stand or just grandstanding?

Here to talk about all of this, Democratic pollster Ron Lester is with us on the phone, and also Tara Setmayer, a conservative commentator and political strategist based here in Washington, D.C. She's here in the studio.

Thanks to both of you for joining us.

Mr. TARA SETMAYER (Republican Strategist): My pleasure.

Mr. RON LESTER (Democratic Pollster): Yeah. Great, Michel.

MARTIN: So Ron, first, how would the visit - the president's visit to California play? Do you think that he showed an effective response?

Mr. LESTER: Well, I'm glad that he went. I - if I was advising him, he would have been out there earlier during the week. It was clear that this was going to be a major problem. He went maybe - I think some of them - I mean, his people will say that he didn't go until it got to a point where it was safe for him to come in. But it came to me that he showed up a little late once again, a day late and a dollar short, and with these natural disaster situations you really need to be on top of it. I think that's part of the key. Certainly, with Katrina the federal government was late, as well as was unprepared, and I hope that that doesn't happen here. I think the jury is still out.

MARTIN: Well, but Ron, I have to ask you there, because the argument, really, is it takes a lot of logistical support to bring a head of state into a situation like that. I mean, I think isn't it reasonable to say that isn't it better to stabilize the situation on the ground before you draw law enforcement resources, public safety resources to protecting and supporting the president as opposed to serving the people who need help? I mean, isn't that the reasonable thing to do?

Mr. LESTER: I would agree with that, and in terms of the argument that perhaps it wasn't safe enough to bring him out there, well, they could have gone to Sacramento and met the governor there and they could have put together a plan. He didn't have to go, didn't have to necessarily be on the scene. I think that just being attentive at an early stage and being prepared is very important here.

MARTIN: Okay. Tara, let's go to you. Comparisons to FEMA's response to the natural disaster in California and the previous disaster, Louisiana and Mississippi, are being made. Two questions: Is it fair to compare the two?

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, I just want to quickly say one thing about the comparison of the president's response time. You made a very, very valid point, Michel, that it does take - people have no idea the enormous logistical nightmare it is to bring the president anywhere.

So to say that he didn't respond or that he wasn't attentive enough in this case I think is unfair and unfair criticism. He declared a national - a federal disaster zone rather quickly and he was out there as quickly as he could be and if he wanted to meet with the governor in Sacramento, then there would have been criticism that the governor was in Sacramento instead of on the ground meeting the needs of the people.

So - now, I'm not going to apologize for the president or the federal government's response for Katrina, but that was another unfair criticism, I think, because logistically for the president to be on the ground in Louisiana, it wasn't - I know emotionally it was something that was targeted and it seemed - it didn't present well, but there are very practical reasons why the president wasn't there immediately that I think people should be aware of. It had nothing to do with any particular affinity or non-affinity for people of color.

Now, as far as the comparison to Katrina, I think that the - in an overall comprehensive emergency response capacity, the natural comparisons will emerge. Obviously the number of people, the fact that they were brought to a stadium, just - you see the natural comparisons come in. Where it's different from Katrina is that this was basically a state and local response and that's where people need to understand emergency response has to start the local level. It starts there and it moves its way up. And this was a success story because of the coordination efforts. I think that they saw some of the mistakes in Katrina and made sure that we - there is no way our state will suffer that same fate, and they made sure those aspects of emergency response were taken care of. I know that Congressman Rohrabacher, he conducts his staff…

MARTIN: Who is your boss.

Ms. SETMAYER: Yes, that's my boss - in California, in Huntington Beach. Thankfully, our district was not affected as negatively as the ones around us. But my boss conducts emergency response training for firemen for first responders in our district for reasons just like this. Be prepared. Prepare. Boy Scouts say it, be prepared. That's what we were here, and it was successful.

MARTIN: But Tara, president also made the point, as you just made, that the difference is effective state leadership, and so sort of instead of setting aside the question of the fact that the residents of this area were far more affluent than many of the people of New Orleans, able to travel in their own vehicles, you know, had the means to get to hotels on their own, didn't need a lot of sort of outside help; the question I have now as, what's next? I mean, should the federal government be involved in restricting development in areas that are likely to be subjected to these kinds of disasters, whether it's in wildfire zones in California, in hurricane zones in Florida, or in a place like New Orleans? Should the federal government be more involved? Ron?

Mr. LESTER: Michel, I think that's a good question. I think that that question begs to be answered itself. And I think that the issue comes down to this. Federal government needs to be prepared better and needs to be proactive in terms of reactive, in terms of these natural disasters.

I mean, you could make the case that bad lack of land management contributed to both disasters, both Katrina and the wildfires. In Southern California, you know, a huge contributing factor was the fact that the proper clearing of the underbrush hadn't been done, that the Forest Service has the obligation to be responsible for large tracts of federal land and that a lot of that work had not been done in California.

In Katrina, you could certainly make the case that it was well known that the levees that had been built over the years, since the last Hurricane Betsy, really didn't have the strength to handle a level three, four or five hurricane. I mean, that was well known. And there were - there had been bills in Congress. This issue had been discussed.

Tulane has done a research and demonstration project in 2005 that actually proved that if a certain amount of rain hit New Orleans, that the levees would break, and it just kind of went unnoticed.

So in the future, the federal government, it has to be better prepared in advance for these potential national disasters, because the state and local governments really don't have the resources to handle it. When you start talking about the expense of building new levees, about clearing the underbrush - that has to be a federal function.

MARTIN: Okay, can I just pause just a second so that I can say that if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our Friday political roundtable.

Tara, what do you think about that?

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, I think that the federal government in a natural disaster situation - sure, they're always going to play the macro role. But where is the responsibility of individuals who choose to live in these areas? At this point now, when you - when people make a decision to purchase a home or to live in an area, there's a lot of thought and research that goes into that, and if you know you're taking the risk, that's why we have flood insurance or that's why they have, you know, different policies, fire insurance, because you know that the area that you're in is prone to these disasters. But where…

MARTIN: But the government supports people in living in these areas by extending water lines, by extending zoning approval…

Ms. SETMAYER: That's true.

MARTIN: People can't just drive out in their trunk and pitch a tent anymore.

Ms. SETMAYER: That's true. But I think there's - that given the scope of the disaster in New Orleans and what's going on here, this is raising the issue again of, is it the federal government's responsibility to bail you out of that after you take the risk of doing it. I think there's a certain amount of - I think there's a discussion to be - that we had about whether that's a valid use of public funds, should tax dollars pay for people to rebuild or live in an area…

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. SETMAYER: …that is natural disaster-prone at this level.

MARTIN: So (unintelligible) speaking of question of sort of how public funds should be used, we must get to this issue of the children's health insurance bill or SCHIP. Yesterday, the House passed a revised - a version of the bill. The administration and Congress have been fighting over this for a couple of weeks now. The Democrats in Congress want to extend coverage from the six million currently coverage of about 10 million. A lot of Republicans support for the bill, but not enough to override a veto. The president's vetoed a previous version of the bill; House passed it again yesterday. Forty-three Republicans voted for the bill, but it still isn't a veto-proof majority.

So Tara, I want to ask you, you know, how do you - how do we evaluate this? Is this a victory for the president? Is it stubbornness on the part of the Democrats? Or are they just, you know, taking a stand on principle to say we believe that 10 million children should be covered?

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, if they were taking a stand on principle, they would have waited and made sure that the entire House was available to vote for it, instead of trying to push this through while you have a dozen members of Congress in California taking care of their constituents in a major disaster. So if it was really about the children and they were really standing on principle then there's no reason why this vote couldn't have happened on Tuesday.

This is one of those issues where, you know, Democrats love to pull out old people and children and say that, oh, Republicans are heartless. They don't want to ensure children and, you know, they're going to starve elderly folks. And this is just a way of - it's absolutely political.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. SETMAYER: Now, the other side of it…

MARTIN: I'm sorry, let me get Ron on this. We have a minute and a half left. Ron, let me hear from you.

Mr. LESTER: Yeah. I am just - it just never seems to not amaze me that the Republicans don't get this one and this is just what's killing them with the voters. I mean, if this is a bill that is going to cover literally millions and millions of children, who don't have health insurance now, you know, figuring out and fine-tuning the details is one thing, but talking about whether or not the federal government should be involved in this is another.

Now, I think that there are some legitimate reasons that it isn't veto-proof. I think that there are lots of loose ends that need to be tied up for this legislation, but the fact that 43 Republicans voted for it was great. I think that over time, the longer this thing is debated, more Republicans will come over because it's the right thing. It needs to be done; Congress needs to figure it out. This is why the American people were so upset with Congress last time that they changed Congress, they changed leadership, et cetera, because this is how they just needs to be done now. Figuring out fine-tuning the details is one thing.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. LESTER: But there really shouldn't even be a discussion about whether or not it needs to be done.

MARTIN: Well, Tara, I have a time for one more comment from you.

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, take out the fact that illegal aliens are covered under this, take out the fact that there are adults covered in that…

MARTIN: Well, the Democrats say they're not. The Democrats say they're not.

Ms. SETMAYER: What they're saying is that there's no component in this to prove you're - that you're illegal citizen, which, in our opinion, means that if you're illegal then you can't get coverage from federal dollars, and that absolutely should not be the case. And take out that adults are covered and let's have a real discussion about who is actually eligible for SCHIP and who isn't. Fifty percent of people who are eligible in most states don't even apply for SCHIP.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, we'll have to leave it there. That - a discussion maybe they should be having in Congress. I don't know, what do you think, Ron?

Mr. LESTER: Yeah, I think so. But I also think it's ridiculous to say that immigrant children don't need health care.

Ms. SETMAYER: Illegal, illegal.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. LESTER: (Unintelligible).

MARTIN: Okay. We're going to have to leave it there. We're going to have to leave it there. Thanks both of you.

Tara Setmayer is a conservative commentator. She's communications director for Republican Congresswoman Dana Rohrabacher. She joined us in the studio. Thanks, Tara. Appreciate it.

Ms. SETMAYER: You're welcome.

MARTIN: And we were also joined by Democratic pollster and political strategist Ron Lester. He was kind enough to join us on the phone from his office in Washington.

Ron, thanks to you.

Mr. LESTER: Thanks a lot.

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