Politicians Push Agendas Via Katrina Aid

One effect of Hurricane Katrina is that it has given conservatives in Congress a chance to offer programs that fit their political ideology. But many allies of President Bush are alarmed at the potential cost of relief efforts.

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As Congress considers a full array of post-Katrina matters, conservatives are hoping to make the Gulf Coast a kind of laboratory for their ideas. For example, President Bush wants to create a Gulf opportunity zone where taxes would be cut and regulations waived to speed up reconstruction. For some conservatives, that's just a first step. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has been a leading congressional backer and promoter of faith-based initiatives. Hurricane Katrina, he says, is a perfect example of why religious organizations and charities should be given government support.

Senator RICK SANTORUM (Republican, Pennsylvania): They are the most nimble. They are the most efficient. They're the most cost-effective. And I think we've seen, in the case of Katrina, that they are, in many respects, the first responders when the government is bureaucratic and been delayed on every level.

NAYLOR: Santorum hopes Congress will provide greater tax incentives to those who donate to charity. It's one of the least controversial of the many ideas that have been percolating through the conservative community in Washington in the aftermath of Katrina. The Heritage Foundation has been encouraging the discussion. Alison Fraser is the think tank's director of economic policy studies.

Ms. ALISON FRASER (Director of Economic Policy Studies, The Heritage Foundation): We've got this really crisis situation right now where we need to think about how these areas in the Gulf Coast states are going to be rebuilt. And it's a great time to think about undoing some of those regulations that could turn this really into a very much more quick process.

NAYLOR: For example, Fraser says, there are a slew of environmental regulations that could be waived that would speed the rebuilding of roads, bridges and schools. Other ideas include cutting taxes to encourage small businesses to rebuild and lure new entrepreneurs to the Gulf Coast, and school vouchers to allow displaced students to attend private and parochial schools. If this sounds familiar, of course it is. It's the social and economic agenda Republicans have long been pushing through Congress with varying degrees of success. Fraser says this is a new chance.

Ms. FRASER: This is an opportunity for us as a nation to really think about how we want to--our relationship with government to work.

NAYLOR: Congress and the Bush administration have already moved to implement some changes. The House approved a bill limiting Katrina-related lawsuits, and the White House quickly waived the Davis-Bacon law that requires contractors to pay workers the prevailing wage. Democrats, such as Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, immediately attacked.

Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): We're talking about 8, 9 and $10 an hour wages. That's what the prevailing wage for the basic construction trades are in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. And that doesn't sound to me like exorbitant wages.

NAYLOR: And conservatives, too, are wary of the cost. Congress has already appropriated more than $60 billion for Katrina-related expenses, and the total federal tab has been projected at some $200 billion. New Hampshire Republican Senator John Sununu says those expenses should be made up by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.

Senator JOHN SUNUNU (Republican, New Hampshire; Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee): There have been a lot of ideas put out there: scaling back the size of the highway bill, which broke the budget resolution; looking at some of the savings that the president suggested at the beginning of the year, which amounts to tens of billions of dollars; or even scaling back the overall size of the prescription drug proposal that was passed two years ago and is already looking like it will run well in excess of our forecasts.

NAYLOR: The White House, though, has already threatened to veto a proposal to put off the drug benefit for a year as a way of paying for the reconstruction program. Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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