Katrina Inquiries Carry Political Risks

Whether you call it the "blame game" or lawmakers' constitutional duty, the investigations into what went wrong with Hurricane Katrina have begun. The investigation itself is now the focal point for a game of partisan brinksmanship — challenging voters next year to choose the winner.

The Republican chairs of the House and Senate government reform committees will conduct the investigation, beginning by laying out a timeline of when the hurricane hit, when the levies broke, and other facts of the disaster. Later they'll get down to grilling federal, state and local officials about their rescue and relief operations — including next Tuesday's much anticipated appearance of the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown.

By then, we'll have the response to Hurricane Rita to compare against the handling of Katrina. This time around, one assumes, the feds won't be caught napping.

But even if the Rita response goes well, the post-Katrina crisis will continue for millions of Gulf Coast residents. And whatever hearings we get on the Hill, they won't be what leaders of either party wanted.

On their first week back in town, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced to much fanfare their plan for a bipartisan, bicameral select committee to investigate the response to Katrina. Only problem was, they didn't consult with Democratic leaders before announcing their "bipartisan" effort. This angered Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Why, the Democrats asked, should the Republicans control the investigation into a federal disaster response led by Republicans in the Bush administration?

The Democrats proposed an alternative: an independent panel like the 9-11 Commission. The idea was backed by some 70 percent of respondents in national polls, but Republican leaders on the Hill wanted to keep the probe within the legislative branch. And the White House, which had initially opposed the 9-11 Commission, was all the more determined to stop this one, having been bruised by revelations and criticisms emanating from the 9-11 panel.

A week of negotiating only served to heighten these tensions. Republicans leaders tried to block their own members from conducting Katrina hearings in various committees, and Democratic leaders refused to appoint any of their members to the panel Republicans proposed. Finally, at the insistence of two moderate Republicans outside of the leadership — Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Virginia Rep. Tom Davis — hearings got underway. The question is, how many Democrats will show up?

The politics here are sticky. Democrats know they have public opinion on their side regarding the independent commission, but public opinion can change. And it might well do so if Americans turn on their TVs to find Republicans asking federal officials tough questions, while Democratic chairs stand empty.

Whether the Democrats decide to participate, or the Republicans eventually accede to an independent commission, it's voters who will decide which party suffers and which gains from this brinksmanship. The entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate will be on the ballot next year. Katrina now looks like the political turning point of this Congress. And as we approach the halfway point between the last election and the next one, the gravitational pull of the future begins to overcome that of the past.

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