Bush Taps White House Official to Lead Katrina Inquiry

President Bush has named White House homeland security adviser Frances Townsend to lead a probe into the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. The choice drew fire from Democrats, who said Townsend could not be independent. Other efforts to create investigation panels have collapsed on Capitol Hill.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

President Bush returned to the Gulf Coast today to survey hurricane relief efforts, even as another tropical storm, Rita, was upgraded to hurricane status as it rounded Florida toward the Gulf of Mexico. The administration continues to deal with political fallout from its response to Katrina. New poll numbers show majority opposition to Mr. Bush and his policies across the board. NPR's Don Gonyea reports from the White House.

DON GONYEA reporting:

The president's first stop today was Gulfport, Mississippi, which was devastated when Hurricane Katrina roared ashore. He visited a large, air-conditioned tent set up in a shopping center parking lot for a meeting with state and local officials about their plans for rebuilding. Here, the president was upbeat.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: There's no doubt in my mind that out of the rubble and out of those huge heaps of timber that used to be homes, a better Mississippi will emerge.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Then it was back to New Orleans, where the president visited a Folgers coffee facility, one of many businesses trying to reopen in a still mostly deserted town. He got a briefing about Hurricane Rita, a rising threat to Texas and perhaps Louisiana as well. But controversy still surrounds the federal response to the first storm. Congressional Republicans had planned a bipartisan investigation into what went wrong with the government response to Katrina, but that idea has now been scrapped. Democrats had declined to participate, complaining that such an inquiry run by the Republican leadership would not be independent of the Republican White House. They argued for a truly independent commission, like the one that looked into the 9/11 terror attacks, as the only way to get an unbiased accounting of what happened.

Then this morning the White House announced that the president's Homeland Security adviser, Francis Townsend, would lead an administration investigation into Katrina, prompting this from Democrat Richard Durbin on the floor of the US Senate today.

Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): I don't know her. She may be a very competent individual. But how in the world can we get to the truth of the question as to what went wrong with Hurricane Katrina? How can we really hope to discover the incompetence that led to all of this human suffering and devastation if the administration is going to investigate itself?

GONYEA: A new Gallup-USA Today-CNN poll out today contains more bad news for the White House. It puts Mr. Bush's overall approval rating at 40 percent; that's a decline that follows a slight boost the president got last week. By 4:1, Americans favor an independent commission to investigate the government hurricane response; 56 percent say steps the president has taken to help Katrina's victims have been mostly for political reasons. What's more, support for the president is shrinking in several other critical areas: two-thirds no longer support his policy in Iraq; nearly 60 percent say it was a mistake to invade, and more than 60 percent disapprove of his performance on the economy. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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