Katrina Shakes Up Agenda in Congress

In politics, as in comedy, timing is everything and everything is context. When Katrina careened into the Gulf Coast, the ensuing disaster cast the nation's political agenda in a whole new context.

For President Bush, the timing was terrible. His agenda of talking up imminent prescription drug coverage under Medicare — in part to boost flagging interest in his Social Security proposals — got flattened by the Gulf Coast catastrophe.

And the president's own reactions in the first hours of the disaster displayed bad political timing as well: he left Texas for California the day Katrina hit and mentioned the hurricane only in passing.

Katrina hit the GOP congressional agenda equally hard. The plans Republican leaders had laid last spring for post-Labor Day action got swamped by the bad news from the Mississippi Delta. When lawmakers got back from their summer break, eight days into the Katrina aftermath, senators realized their first-day-back vote on a permanent repeal of the estate tax was starting to look politically surreal.

But right up until Labor Day, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist had ignored demands from his Democratic counterpart, Harry Reid, to cancel the estate tax vote and focus on hurricane relief. Frist reconsidered after having spent the weekend in the catastrophe zone applying his skills there as a physician. Applying his skills as a politician, he knocked the estate tax vote off the calendar, as they say on the Hill "sine die" — without a calendar date certain.

The congressional calendar also set Sept. 15 as the deadline for lawmakers to submit bills that would cut spending and, under the special rules of the budget process, not be subject to filibuster in the Senate. Lots of Republicans thought this would be their chance for a meaningful round of budget cuts, including $10 billion from Medicaid.

But as TV screens showed images of bereft Katrina victims left with nothing but the clothes on their backs, the idea of cutting off medical care to the poor started giving many Republicans second thoughts — especially about re-election battles next year.

Some also wondered whether this was really the right time to push ahead with plans to extend $70 billion worth of investment-related tax cuts. And if Mr. Bush's plan for revamping Social Security faced bleak prospects on Capitol Hill before Katrina struck, it's been all but disappeared in the surge of storm-related issues since.

So what was supposed to have been a Republican-led belt-tightening in this budget year has instead become a disaster-led spending spree on Capitol Hill, the likes of which this nation has never witnessed. A ruling party stung by charges of lassitude, incompetence and stinginess has, at least for now, thrown its own agenda overboard and endorsed more than $60 billion in emergency assistance. And much more than that is likely to get the green light in the weeks and months to come. A price tag of $200 billion for the year has been mentioned, which would put Katrina in a class with the war in Iraq.

A few fiscal conservatives are demanding that this spending be offset by other savings, but there's not much leeway for cutting other federal spending. Perhaps the only item big enough to provide such savings would be the war in Iraq, and that's not going to wind down until at least next year.

Besides, some Republicans may be even more willing to fund relief for the Gulf Coast because of the war overseas. Bush administration officials have denied the war is competing with National Guard deployments to the disaster area. By the same token, GOP lawmakers don't want Democrats charging that disaster relief is being shortchanged because of Iraq.

The result is that without offsets, a budget deficit that was on track to be around $333 billion in this fiscal year (ending Sept. 30) could easily soar back up above $400 billion. So much for belt-tightening.

But crisis is also opportunity, and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt is already talking up the need for a Katrina recovery economic stimulus package. For the majority of Republicans (and some Democrats) who believe tax cuts help both in good times and bad, Katrina is bound to become a rallying cry for tax holidays and other fiscal incentives.

The hurricane will also be invoked by lawmakers pushing to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Senate had been expected to authorize such drilling this fall under the filibuster-proof protection of the federal budget process. And some lawmakers are even calling for a new energy bill — on top of the one enacted this summer — saying more needs to be done to encourage domestic energy production.

Katrina has also turned the tables in Washington for Democrats. Not having control of any branch of the government or chamber of Congress normally leaves the Democrats at a huge disadvantage. But it can suddenly seem an advantage when the federal government is seen to have botched the response to the nation's worst natural disaster.

After the terror attacks of September 2001, congressional Democrats joined in shows of bipartisanship. But this time, they were already well on the political offensive as they arrived for what promises to be a stormy fall session.

They accused their Republican counterparts of having contributed to the disaster by under-funding the Army Corps of Engineers. They pointed to the poverty of the tens of thousands who were left behind in New Orleans as the storm struck. And they chided the GOP for even thinking about cutting Medicaid and other assistance to the poor.

Emboldened by public anger with the Bush administration, they even refused to join what GOP leaders billed as a "bipartisan" joint inquiry into the Katrina fiasco.

Almost overnight, Democrats found that a nation long transfixed by those at the top had suddenly turned its sights and sympathies to those on the bottom. And with that came new hopes for advancing a long-frustrated Democratic agenda: raising the minimum wage, expanding health care coverage, boosting education funding, extending unemployment insurance and building more affordable housing.

The problem, of course, is that there's little money available to fund any of those agenda items. Still, Republicans eager to show their bona fides with the common man before next year's midterm elections may now be more inclined to support Democratic initiatives than they were pre-Katrina.

To be sure, the social safety net agenda is likely to be tailored specifically for hurricane survivors — at least for now. But if that leads to a national re-examination of what the larger society owes some 36 million Americans who live below the poverty line, Katrina could also become an event remembered for arresting, if not reversing, a rightward swing of the nation's political pendulum.

That is, if Democrats can manage to keep scoring political points without also appearing to exploit a national disaster.

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