Congress and the Hurricane Katrina Response

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What's happening with plans for Congressional hearings into the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? Will there be one joint House-Senate Commission, as envisioned by GOP leaders, or many hearings by various committees?

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

While the spotlight in Washington is on the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, another drama is playing out in the wings. Congressional leaders are fighting about how to investigate the response to Hurricane Katrina. Lawmakers from both parties want an independent commission, like the one that investigated 9/11, something Republican leaders oppose. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

Republicans in Congress take pride in their party's discipline. It is rare that GOP lawmakers, except for a couple of mavericks, break lockstep with their leaders. But the public outcry over the government's response to Hurricane Katrina has eroded somewhat the party's control. A sign of this was the reaction to House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's proposal of a bipartisan, joint investigation of the hurricane response. Their plan would give Republicans the majority on that committee and, therefore, control over its subpoena powers. Democrats immediately announced they would boycott the hearings, and few rank-and-file Republicans rallied around their party. Today Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid listed his demands.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Minority Leader): So the only thing that I will agree to, in this so-called independent look, from the Republicans' eyes: the same number of Democrats on the committee as Republicans, and both Democrats and Republicans have to sign off on subpoenas. Other than that, they're wasting their time talking to us.

SEABROOK: Republicans are struggling to gain control over the situation. Today House Majority Leader Tom DeLay insisted they will go forward with the joint investigation and called Democrats' demands `petty' and `blind partisanship.' But there is increasing support among Republicans, especially in the Senate, for an independent investigation outside of Congress. Many Democrats, including New York Senator Hillary Clinton, believe an investigation should be modeled after the 9-11 Commission.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): I've called for an independent Katrina commission because I don't think it's appropriate or possible for the government to investigate itself. With all due respect, I don't think the president investigating himself and his administration is going to give us the answers or the clear-headed, realistic recommendations for the future.

SEABROOK: And it appears that this argument has some sway with the public. A Washington Post-ABC News poll out today shows 73 percent support for an independent commission into the government's Hurricane Katrina operations. Republican leaders argue that Democrats are too quick to give up their responsibilities to be a check on the executive branch. Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia is House Republicans' chief deputy whip.

Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia; Chief Deputy Whip): You know, it is Congress' job to exercise oversight over FEMA and other agencies that are involved with a response to a natural disaster. And so I feel it is very appropriate for us to engage in direct oversight and not to shirk our responsibility off to an independent commission.

SEABROOK: Meanwhile, other Republicans are moving forward. Maine Senator Susan Collins said today the Homeland Security Committee, which she chairs, will begin hearings tomorrow into what evacuees need now. Collins also said her committee will probe deeper in the coming days.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): We will be--and have already started at the staff level--extending our inquiry to investigate what went wrong at all levels of government. And we'll be looking at everything from leadership to structure to the adequacy of current laws. It's going to be an in-depth, extensive review.

SEABROOK: Collins said today she's not against an independent commission, and she hopes a joint House-Senate investigation is formed. But whatever happens, she and other Republicans are now breaking ranks with their leaders to hold their own hearings into the government's response to Katrina. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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