Federal Role in Hurricane Cleanup Remains Uncertain

After the federal government's slow response to Katrina, President Bush promised to do whatever it takes to help citizens rebuild their lives. But the federal role in rebuilding remains an issue.

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After the federal government's slow response to Katrina, President Bush gave a speech in New Orleans. He promised to do whatever it takes to help citizens rebuild their lives. Weeks later, the federal role in rebuilding remains uncertain, as NPR's John Ydstie reports.

JOHN YDSTIE reporting:

John McIlwain is a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a think tank that's helping the city of New Orleans develop a plan for rebuilding. McIlwain is concerned that recent political developments in Washington make the challenge the city faces even greater.

Mr. JOHN McILWAIN (Senior Fellow, Urban Land Institute): I think they're really an unhappy confluence of events that have started to come together.

YDSTIE: For example, there's the increasing power of Republican budget cutters on Capitol Hill. They filled the vacuum created by Congressman Tom Delay's indictment and departure from his House leadership position. McIlwain believes that could mean fewer funds for rebuilding.

Mr. McILWAIN: At the same time, the president seems to have lost a lot of his political capital, I think is what he would call it. And so, his ability to impact what's going on on the Hill at this point seems to have--to be much lower. So the promises that he made at the time when he went down to New Orleans, when--a time he was traveling to the Gulf Coast--may be harder for him to deliver on.

YDSTIE: Meanwhile, says McIlwain, Louisiana's congressional delegation lost some credibility when its two senators put together a wish list worth $250 billion which included items that went far beyond recovery and rebuilding.

Mr. McILWAIN: In the midst of some very, very good requests, very important requests--from levees and housing and reconstruction aid--were every other thing that had been on the list for years. And what happened was it became a joke.

YDSTIE: Brian Riedl of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, says while he believes the devastated Gulf Coast will get what it needs from the federal government, he does think Katrina blew in a new attitude towards spending on Capitol Hill.

Mr. BRIAN RIEDL (The Heritage Foundation): Fiscal conservatives have been extremely frustrated over federal spending for the past four years. Government has grown by a third since 2001. The president's call for a basically blank checkbook as a result of Hurricane Katrina was the final straw. And what we're seeing now is the first real fight against runaway federal spending in about 10 years.

YDSTIE: New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, was in Washington last week to plead the city's case before Congress. He says he's noticed a diminished sense of urgency about the city's challenges.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans): I'm not sure exactly what changed. I don't know if it was the political struggles of the White House or if it was the bill that was filed asking for $250 billion. But something changed and we seem to have gotten into kind of this tortoise pace providing support.

YDSTIE: Despite the re-emergence of spending hawks on Capitol Hill, Republican Congressman Bobby Jindal, who represents parts of New Orleans and neighboring Jefferson parish, says he believes there is a commitment in Congress to provide what's necessary to help rebuild.

Congressman BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): For example, even in the middle of this process, both the House and the Senate have committed each at least $2 billion to help with the health-care costs through Medicaid of those impacted by the storms.

YDSTIE: But Jindal also feels the federal response on the ground has not been adequate.

Cong. JINDAL: I continue to be frustrated at the pace of the effort and certainly the lack of coordination. Now this week, the administration named a coordinator for the federal efforts. I've been pushing for that position for weeks now and had suggested some specific names. I'm hopeful by having one point person, somebody who can coordinate this, that there'll actually be an improvement on the federal side.

YDSTIE: The man appointed last week by the president to coordinate the rebuilding is Don Powell, chairman of the FDIC and a former Texas banker and Bush campaign contributor. Jindal had proposed a different Powell, the former secretary of State, who he thought had the management experience and command presence to do the job. Jindal says he hopes Don Powell has the authority and the skill to get the bureaucracies working together. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

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