Senate Reconvenes, Agenda Sidelined The Senate returns from its five-week break and tosses out its planned agenda in order to focus on Katrina relief efforts. Gone for the time being are efforts to permanently repeal the estate tax, restructure social security, and debate stem cell research proposals.
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Senate Reconvenes, Agenda Sidelined

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Senate Reconvenes, Agenda Sidelined

Senate Reconvenes, Agenda Sidelined

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

In New Orleans today there was some good news.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans, Louisiana): The 17th Street Canal has been completely repaired. There's a total levee system that is stopping water from flowing on either side.

SIEGEL: New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced that the last major breach in the levee system had been plugged.

BLOCK: Mayor Nagin said it would take three weeks to remove the water, weeks more to get rid of the debris and perhaps two months to get the electricity back on.

SIEGEL: It was against this backdrop that the Senate reconvened today after a five-week break and with a sharply revised agenda. Supreme Court confirmation hearings for John Roberts that were to begin today were postponed until Monday, and plans to abolish the estate tax have been set aside. Instead, as NPR's David Welna reports, Republican leaders are now pledging that recovery from Hurricane Katrina is their new top priority.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Katrina loomed large over the Senate today. Arizona Republican John McCain found nothing seemed to matter as much to his colleagues, not even a war that's fast losing public support.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I think everything has been overshadowed by this latest tragedy, everything. And, unfortunately we--there still seems to be no plans to take up Department of Defense authorization, and we can't forget that we're still in a war and things are very tough in Iraq.

WELNA: But with widespread anger over how other officials have dealt with Katrina, Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist made it clear he wants the Senate to stay focused on hurricane relief this week.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee; Majority Leader): We've got the skyrocketing energy prices and gasoline prices and oil prices. We have the ongoing war in Iraq. We have the judicial nomination, which is under way. And we have the response to Katrina. And the response to Katrina right now, because it is an ongoing catastrophe, an ongoing natural disaster, needs to be first and foremost.

WELNA: And so Frist dumped plans to hold a vote today on a permanent repeal of the estate tax, an issue Republicans have hoped to campaign on next year. Democratic leader Harry Reid had earlier warned that a vote on such a measure benefiting only the nation's wealthiest families was inappropriate, and he thanked Frist for relenting today.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Minority Leader): I commend the majority leader for clearing the Senate calendar on the estate tax, so we can focus on Katrina.

WELNA: Reid estimated the storm cleanup may cost the federal government $150 billion. President Bush is expected for now to ask for another $40 billion. Some senators today blasted what they saw as a tardy and inept federal response to Katrina. Patrick Leahy is a Vermont Democrat.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Why the hell couldn't a truckload of water, a truckload of medicine, a busload of physicians, people who could bring help and care and hope to the people--why couldn't they get through?

WELNA: At the White House today President Bush demurred when asked which level of government was most responsible for what went wrong in the response to Katrina.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I think one of the things that people want us to do here is to play a blame game. I--we gotta solve problems. We're problem-solvers. There will be ample time for people to figure out what went right and what went wrong.

WELNA: The president declared he planned to lead an investigation which would be carried out, as he put it, `over time.' Meanwhile, Maine Republican Susan Collins, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee, announced plans for a separate bipartisan probe into what went wrong.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine; Chairwoman, Homeland Security Committee): How is it possible that almost four years to the day after the attacks on our country, with billions of dollars spent to improve our preparedness, that a major area of this nation was so ill-prepared to respond to a catastrophe?

WELNA: Collins said hearings into the failings of the rescue effort will begin next week. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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