Katrina Response Revives Ideological Debate

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Congress is setting aside much of the agenda that President Bush wanted to pursue in September. Instead, lawmakers are looking at possible responses to Hurricane Katrina. Lawmakers are also bringing Katrina into debates that have less to do with direct assistance and more to do with ideologyLawmakers are also bringing Katrina into debates that have less to do with direct assistance and more to do with ideology about help for people in need.


Congress is setting aside much of the agenda that President Bush wanted to pursue in September. Instead, lawmakers are looking at possible responses to Hurricane Katrina. Most of the action, of course, centers on immediate aid for the storm victims, but this is also a chance for both parties to push ideological solutions. Democrats are reviving a basic liberal idea that the government should help ordinary people in hard times. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

One early indicator of Democrats' post-Katrina ambitions has to do with the new bankruptcy law. The law makes it harder for consumers to escape their debts. The financial industry has wanted this for years, and Congress finally passed it this spring. The law takes effect October 17th. But in an early round of the post-Katrina political maneuvering, Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced legislation that would waive key provisions of the law for victims of natural disasters. Travis Plunkett, legislative director at the Consumer Federation of America, says the bankruptcy law would punish people when they need help.

Mr. TRAVIS PLUNKETT (Consumer Federation of America): The timing here is terrible. The new law is set to take effect just when many victims of Hurricane Katrina are starting to think about their financial situation and consider the awful possibility of bankruptcy.

OVERBY: And bankruptcy is just one area where Democratic lawmakers and progressive policy advocates say Katrina might tip the political balance. Even as Senate Democrats laid out a proposed relief package last week, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid was looking far beyond the wreckage of the Gulf Coast.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Senate Minority Leader): What we're talking about here are the people who have been so devastated by Katrina, but I think it brings to mind--every one of our minds we have to take a look at rebuilding the safety net that actually doesn't exist at this time.

OVERBY: Republicans have delayed votes on a budget package that would permanently eliminate taxes on big estates while cutting spending for Medicaid health care for the poor.

Across Washington, Democrats and progressives are dusting off other ideas that Congress hasn't seriously considered since Republicans took control 11 years ago. Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank was speaking just off the House floor.

Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts): In the area that I'm most familiar with here, housing, we have a problem. We're going to be sending people from the affected areas to get housing elsewhere, but in many cases, they're going to be going to communities that already have a shortage of affordable housing. I hope to use this as an opportunity to point out why we need to construct new housing.

OVERBY: Michael Petit, president of the advocacy group Every Child Matters, says health care and other issues will get new attention.

Mr. MICHAEL PETIT (President, Every Child Matters): Because there will be a spotlighting of here are children, here are families that need something, whether it's in Mississippi or Louisiana. And if you're going to do it for Mississippi and Louisiana, why wouldn't you do it for Maine and New York and California, if there's legitimate need there as well? Members of Congress are worried right now about being portrayed as unkind to children, unkind to people who are down and out.

Mr. PATRICK BASHAM (Cato Institute): It's an opportunity that the left could not have envisioned being presented with.

OVERBY: Patrick Basham is a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. He says the Republicans would be smart to write boldly conservative relief plans but instead seem ready to concede the ideological ground to the Democrats.

Mr. BASHAM: Battling at the margin so that what the Democrats and the left achieved was less than it would be otherwise.

OVERBY: A classic Capitol Hill strategy--giving a little ground now and postponing any showdown until the memories of Katrina's chaos and destruction start to fade.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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