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More than three weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, evacuees aren't the only ones looking to the federal government for help. Corporate lobbyists have been talking with lawmakers quietly about legislative relief for their industries and clients. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY reporting:
Before Katrina, September was shaping up as a month for several congressional committees to examine the late summer spike in gasoline prices. The hurricane changed that agenda. Instead of exposing problems the oil industry might fix, lawmakers are wondering how best to fix problems for the oil industry. New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici gaveled a Senate Energy Committee hearing to order eight days after Katrina hit.
Senator PETE DOMENICI (Republican, New Mexico): Now Katrina's happened, so it's a reality about which we cannot decide that is it's not relevant to these hearings, because it is. It's pointed out some things we ought to know.
OVERBY: One of those things is the production bottleneck that's become apparent at America's oil refineries. It's quickly become a top concern on Capitol Hill. The National Petrochemical and Refiners Association says the answer is to encourage more investment in refineries by sweetening the rules on tax write-offs and by streamlining environmental regulations. The association's president is Bob Slaughter.
Mr. BOB SLAUGHTER (President, National Petrochemical and Refiners Association): Congress now is mostly in the position of--actually, we're getting many calls from members, and our member companies are getting calls from their representatives asking what they can do to increase US refining capacity.
OVERBY: Congress is not responding to Katrina the way it did to the terror attacks in 2001. Back then, within two weeks of the 9/11 suicide attacks, Congress gave the hard-hit airline industry a bailout worth $15 billion. This time around, there's not such a sense of urgency, even though some airlines are asking for help on fuel prices.
Most industries are not bringing in new requests; rather, they cite Katrina as new justification for legislation they already wanted. For credit unions, that means a regulatory relief bill that was introduced in May. For insurance companies, it's an extension of federal financial protection for claims arising from terrorist attacks. Congress created that financial backstop after 9/11, but it's due to expire on December 31st. The American Insurance Association lobbies for property and casualty insurers. Julie Rochman is its spokesman.
Ms. JULIE ROCHMAN (Spokesman): Katrina has an impact on terrorism insurance in the same way it has an impact on every other issue on Congress' agenda, and that is that it's going to take a lot of their time.
OVERBY: Some insurance companies are also pushing for a second similar program which would cover the most costly claims from natural disasters. Again, not a new idea. The bill was introduced last February. At least for now, there are still some Capitol Hill skeptics on the need for post-Katrina corporate assistance. Iowa Republican Charles Grassley, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, says he's not sure insurance companies need that much help.
Senator CHARLES GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa; Finance Committee Chairman): I have been feeling that over the last two or three years, insurance has had a pretty good profitable business, building up reserves, and I haven't heard of the immediate needs for that.
OVERBY: And more broadly, there are budgetary concerns. Republican Senator Mike DeWine represents Ohio.
Senator MIKE DeWINE (Republican, Ohio): Part of it is that Congress realizes that just the cost of Katrina, the reconstruction, things that we know Congress is going to have to pay for is going to be so expensive.
OVERBY: Beyond that, DeWine says things will have to be looked at very carefully. But at the refiners association, Bob Slaughter doesn't wound too worried.
Mr. SLAUGHTER: It's the business of an industry such as ours to make suggestions when they're requested as to what should at least be considered, and that's all we're doing here.
OVERBY: The voice of someone who's already got the ear of Congress. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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