Pace of New Orleans Return in Dispute Federal officials and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin have much different expectations about repopulating the city. Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times talks with Sheilah Kast about the politics involved.
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Pace of New Orleans Return in Dispute

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Pace of New Orleans Return in Dispute

Pace of New Orleans Return in Dispute

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From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Sheilah Kast.

Federal and local officials this weekend disagreed on when large numbers of residents of New Orleans can return to their devastated city. The chief federal recovery official on the ground, Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, characterized it as `extremely problematic' calls by New Orleans' Mayor Ray Nagin to have 180,000 residents return to the city next week. According to the Associated Press, Allen cited weakened levees and a lack of drinking water as major obstacles to repopulating the city. Nagin countered that he was balancing safety concerns with a need to begin rebuilding lives in New Orleans. The disagreement is just the latest in a series of conflicts between federal and local officials. From Washington, Los Angeles Times bureau chief Doyle McManus has been watching the dynamics of disaster relief in recent weeks. He joins us in the studio.

Welcome back.

Mr. DOYLE McMANUS (Los Angeles Times): Good morning, Sheilah.

KAST: President Bush tried to recapture the initiative this past week with a speech to the nation Thursday evening outlining a big picture image of a hopeful future for New Orleans, but very basic health, safety and infrastructure remain the order of the day. Is the president showing any real signs of recovery from a weak, early response to Katrina?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, I think he is, if only because that initial week or 10 days was so disastrous in the picture of a federal government that didn't know what to do and a president who wasn't sure he was out there to lead--and, of course, George W. Bush's main pitch to the country in his re-election campaign last year and all along has been that he would be a strong leader. Well, he has now spoken to the country and said, `Here are our priorities, here are things we plan to do.'

The problem the president faces is this: This is still a very chaotic situation. There is still half a million families getting aid from the federal government. FEMA is still FEMA. The bureaucracy is still bureaucracy. States and local governments with--that are--that have taken in evacuees are wailing about where they're going to get their money. And as this conflict over when people can go back to New Orleans shows us, look, people are going to behave like people. They're not going to wait for federal forms to show up before deciding what to do with their lives.

So you've got a lot of chaos, a lot of disorder and there's going to be sustained national attention to this in a way that wasn't the case with earlier hurricanes. So I think this really is the opening of a new phase of the Bush presidency that Katrina will remain front and center in and that ends up reordering a lot of other priorities.

KAST: Mr. Bush spoke of recovery efforts, as you say, that will reach far into the future and require enormous amounts of federal spending. But he remained faithful to his commitment to the tax cuts implemented earlier in his administration. How does that jive with what you're saying about a new era? Some say the president is risking the health of the economy. How do you see the calculations?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, one thing George W. Bush learned from his father is you've got to have one or two things that define your values and stick with them. And for this administration, you can strip away anything else you want, tax cuts are still there. And that's why you heard administration officials right up to the president last week saying if--to roll back those tax cuts would wreck the economy. So what the critics are going to say is, you know, we can't afford to pay for all of this. We can't afford to pay for a war in Iraq and rebuilding the Gulf Coast by running up deficits, and that's going to harm the economy. The administration is already trying to quash that argument by saying, `No, no, this is the economy.'

Now around the edges we are seeing some cutbacks on the Bush platform; the Bush priorities. Social Security reform for all intents and purposes is gone. The estate tax, which was an enormously important issue for conservative Republicans, probably is not going to get repealed this year. So there are changes on the edges. But on tax cuts, in general, those tax cuts are going to stay.

KAST: And administration officials are talking about cutting, quote, "unnecessary federal spending" to pay for the rebuilding. Any ideas what they mean by that?

Mr. McMANUS: Sheilah, this is Washington. `Unnecessary spending' means somebody else's favorite project. Now there are lots and lots, for example, of pork-barrel projects in the budget right now. We're seeing a fascinating split between deficit-cutting Republicans and pork-spending Republicans. Tom DeLay, a House Republican leader, said that isn't pork. Those highways and those bridges are vital infrastructure and we need them for the economy. So I think the answer is we're just going to run up deficits and it's going to be real hard for anyone to find spending that everybody agrees is unnecessary.

KAST: Changing topics. The Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings this past week on the nomination of John Roberts to be the next chief justice of the United States. Nominate--his nomination seems pretty much assured. What does this mean for the second nomination the president still needs to make to the Supreme Court?

Mr. McMANUS: It probably means it's a much bigger fight. John Roberts turned out to be another William Rehnquist, which isn't a surprise. He was William Rehnquist's clerk. He turned out to have such heft and stature that everybody agreed he was going to get through. But now you've got the most socially conservative Republicans saying to the White House, `We want someone even more conservative than Judge Roberts.' And you've got Democrats getting ready to try to organize some votes against Roberts to warn the White House, `It better be somebody more moderate the next time.' I think all this has done is deferred the big fight for the next nominee at a time when the president, for all these other reasons we're talking about, may be a little weaker politically.

KAST: And a lot of other news this week. The president spoke to the UN, he held talks with Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, other talks on nuclear proliferation with North Korea and Iran, gas prices are high, the war goes on, Katrina's devastation. Is there any feeling, an age of limits in Washington, of a time when broad national sacrifice might be needed to face all these challenges?

Mr. McMANUS: You know, the question of limits hasn't been spoken by the president. He hates to talk that way, but he has begun to talk about sacrifice and shared work. I think we are going to see more calls on the country and some trims in goals, not only on taxes, also possibly in Iraq.

KAST: Doyle McManus is the Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and a frequent guest on our program.

Thanks, Doyle.

Mr. McMANUS: Thank you, Sheilah.

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