House Argues Over Katrina Inquiry

The House has erupted in partisan bickering in its attempt to create a select committee to investigate the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. Republicans intend to push for a GOP majority on the committee, which Democrats deem unacceptable.

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Who takes the lead on the investigation into the government's response to Katrina is the subject of debate on Capitol Hill. Democrats and Republicans are clashing over who should gauge government failures in the disaster and over who is most at fault. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

On the House floor today lawmakers debated a Republican proposal to set up a select committee to lead the investigation of the response to Katrina. GOP leaders had proposed a joint House-Senate committee, but that plan is on hold for now because Democrats say they won't appoint any members. Republican Charles Boustany of Louisiana said it should be Congress, not an independent commission, as many Democrats want, that is in charge of the probe.

Representative CHARLES BOUSTANY (Republican, Louisiana): The idea of an independent commission is not the best option. It's the responsibility of Congress to look at the federal agencies this body created to respond to disasters. It's the responsibility of Congress to identify the deficiencies and correct them.

NAYLOR: Republican leaders want the select committee to contain a majority of Republicans. Democratic leaders object. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has said she won't appoint any Democrats to sit on the panel, argued a Republican-led committee is not likely to probe too deeply into any failings of the Bush administration.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Minority Leader): I plead with my colleagues in this body to reject any sham committee, supposedly bipartisan--not so; supposedly bicameral--not so. One thing we know: It is a vehicle to whitewash, to whitewash and not have a true look into what went wrong.

NAYLOR: The House approved formation of the select committee on a mostly party-line vote, but the Senate has yet to act. Democrats there could filibuster formation of such a panel, a showdown GOP leaders hope to avoid.

Meanwhile, a House committee did hold a hearing on Katrina today, giving members on both sides of the aisle a chance to score political points. California Democrat Henry Waxman cited a 2004 Federal Emergency Management Agency document that he said warned a Category 4 hurricane in New Orleans could cause a megadisaster.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): Katrina wasn't a surprise. This wasn't a disaster that no one could have predicted, as the president said. Over a year ago FEMA knew that a Category 4 hurricane could cause a megadisaster. Yet apparently FEMA and the rest of the government was caught unprepared.

NAYLOR: Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays lectured this was not the time for political finger-pointing.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Representative CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (Republican, Connecticut): Bottom line is if you want to be a partisan Democrat, you'll just focus on FEMA and what the Department of Homeland Security should have done. And if you want to be a partisan Republican, you'll just focus on the outrageous failure on the state and local governments. And if you want to be bipartisan, you focus on all of it.

NAYLOR: The partisan bickering compelled California Republican Darrell Issa to apologize to the panel of local officials waiting to testify at the hearing. `This shows why you need to count on yourselves,' he said, `because you can't count on Congress.' Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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