Katrina Aid Approved Amid Partisan Infighting

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The House and Senate approve nearly $52 billion in new emergency funding to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. And President Bush vowed to clear away any red tape standing in the way of victims seeking federal assistance. Political calculation and finger-pointing have also become part of the response to Katrina.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is away. I'm Susan Stamberg.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The House and Senate yesterday rushed to approve nearly $52 billion in new emergency funding to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. And President Bush vowed to clear away any red tape standing in the way of victims seeking federal assistance. Political calculation and finger pointing have also become part of the response to Katrina. NPR's David Greene reports from the White House.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

It was just a few days ago that President Bush demanded that there be no blame game over deadly Hurricane Katrina. Apparently nobody listened to him.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (House Minority Leader): Michael Brown has no qualifications for the job. He proved that last week.

GREENE: That was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi who has emerged as perhaps the Bush administration's most vocal critic. She was talking about Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but she didn't limit her criticism to him.

Rep. PELOSI: Well, I said to the president, `One thing you can do immediately that will make a difference in terms of meeting the needs of the victims of the hurricane is to put a competent leader there.' He said, `What didn't go right, Nancy? Why would I do that? What didn't go right, Nancy?' I think that's cause for concern. And if they want to defend how FEMA acted last week, well, then let them do that.

GREENE: White House officials said Pelosi misunderstood the president and that Mr. Bush was asking Pelosi to speak about what problems she had with Brown so that he could try to address her concerns. But Pelosi is not alone in her criticism. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is asking questions about how much time Mr. Bush spent dealing with the hurricane when he was finishing vacation in Texas. In fact, as they ramp up their attacks on the administration over the hurricane, Democrats seem more unified than they've been for some time. That has rallied Republicans. House Speaker Dennis Hastert led the counterattack.

Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Speaker of the House): People can join in and help get the job done or some people can stand aside and criticize, but, you know, we have work to do. We can't be distracted by partisanship, by finger pointing, by name calling.

GREENE: Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist stood with Hastert outside the White House and seemed eager to point out that too much blame was heaped at the federal government.

Senator BILL FRIST (Majority Leader): I think increasingly people see that there was a systemwide failure at the local level, at the state level and at the federal level.

GREENE: Looking at all levels of government would be the task of a congressional committee Frist and Hastert have proposed as an alternative to multiple hearings and different committees. Democrats were quick to call the Republican proposal a sham, an effort to divert attention from the Bush administration's failures. As for the president, he says he'll carry out his own investigation. He's been dispatching high level emissaries to the stricken region. Yesterday, first lady Laura Bush visited a Mississippi school and was asked how she thought the relief effort was going.

Mrs. LAURA BUSH (First Lady): Across the board, very, very well. That's what I would say. I think we've seen a lot of the same footage over and over that isn't necessarily representative of what really happened.

GREENE: Vice President Dick Cheney headed for the Gulf Coast yesterday and said things are going well.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: I think the progress we're making is significant. I think the performance, in general, at least in terms of the information I've received from the locals, is definitely very impressive.

GREENE: At the same time, it's clear that the White House has several messages it wants to get out. While the first lady and vice president were accentuating the positive, White House spokesman Scott McClellan was telling Americans Mr. Bush is aware of what has gone wrong.

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Spokesman): The president found it totally unacceptable that you had some 25,000 people in need of assistance that were waiting for a few days to get the food and water and medicine that they needed.

GREENE: Mr. Bush, for his part, delivered a message of compassion.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Throughout our history in times of testing, Americans have come together in prayer to heal and ask for strength for the tasks ahead.

GREENE: He also urged evacuees to tap into federal assistance, including food stamps, Medicaid, even $2,000 debit cards and he's promising to cut the red tape and bureaucracy to make them available. David Greene, NPR News, the White House.

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