Thursday, September 29, 2005

Combined wire dispatches

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, blamed by the former leader of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin for many of the city’s post-hurricane problems, was given no questions about her response to Hurricane Katrina when she appeared before a Senate committee to plead for more federal money.

She asked not to be questioned about it and the senators agreed.

Mrs. Blanco, a Democrat, was invited by the Senate Finance Committee to respond to charges by former FEMA Director Michael D. Brown, who the day before called Louisiana officials “dysfunctional” in handling the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“Today, I came really to talk about job creation,” she said.

Later, she told reporters, “The facts will speak for themselves. I will tell our story when the time is appropriate.”

Mr. Brown, who resigned from FEMA under a hail of criticism, testified Tuesday before the House select committee investigating the response to Katrina and blamed Mrs. Blanco and Mr. Nagin for the slow reaction to the flooding and devastation to the city.

He was questioned sharply by committee members of both parties. Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican, called Mr. Brown “clueless.”

Republican senators at yesterday’s hearing by the Finance Committee — Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, Trent Lott of Mississippi, Olympia J. Snow of Maine, Jon Kyl of Arizona, Craig Thomas of Wyoming, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Bill Frist of Tennessee, Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, Jim Bunning of Kentucky and Michael D. Crapo of Idaho — agreed to Mrs. Blanco’s request not to discuss her performance after the hurricane.

Instead, she devoted her appearance to pleading for help to rebuild businesses and creating jobs in Louisiana. She said Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had wiped out a third of the state’s economy.

“It’s very important to have incentives for our workers to return, and in order to do that, we have to have incentives for business to return,” Mrs. Blanco said, asking specifically for business tax write-offs for new investments, low-interest bonds for business borrowing and emergency business loans.

“Katrina and Rita brought our people and our economy to its knees,” she said. “These storms knocked us down, but they didn’t knock us out. And with your help and support, we will come back stronger and more prosperous than before.”

The governors of two other states hit by Katrina — Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama — testified before the committee via closed circuit television.

The committee is considering legislation that would provide tax incentives, health care aid and other financial assistance to the Gulf states devastated by the two storms.

The White House and committee members disagree over details of a health care package backed by Mr. Grassley and Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the top Democrat on the panel. The legislation would ease eligibility requirements for storm victims for the Medicaid program for the poor, and provide federal assistance to help displaced workers maintain private insurance coverage.

The federal government would pay the full cost of Medicaid for disaster victims even though those costs are usually shared by the states. The White House said this week that it opposes the legislation. This appeared to anger the committee.

“We can work with everybody, including the administration, or against them, and I’m prepared to go either way,” Mr. Lott said.

Mr. Grassley said he was prepared to hold up other legislation backed by the administration to get the health care bill passed. “It’s just ludicrous that this bill can’t move,” he said.

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