Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Congressional Democrats yesterday laid the blame for the flawed response to Hurricane Katrina squarely on President Bush, saying he was “oblivious” to the crisis immediately after the storm hit.

The Senate’s top Democrat asked whether Mr. Bush prepared properly for the disaster while “on vacation,” but a Gallup Poll finds that only 13 percent of Americans blame the president.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi lashed out at Mr. Bush, with Mrs. Pelosi taking the unusual action of recounting her private conversation with the president. The California Democrat said she urged Mr. Bush to fire Michael D. Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“He said, ‘Why would I do that?’ and I said because of all that went wrong, of all that didn’t go right last week. And he said, ‘What didn’t go right?’

“Oblivious, in denial, dangerous,” she said of Mr. Bush.

Mr. Reid, in a letter to the chairman of the Senate committee that will hold hearings on what went wrong in the hurricane response, asked: “How much time did the president spend dealing with this emerging crisis while he was on vacation?” and “Why didn’t President Bush immediately return to Washington from his vacation?”

The White House, which has said repeatedly that it would not engage in what it calls the “blame game” over how and why the delivery of food and supplies was delayed for days after the hurricane struck Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi and left most of New Orleans under water, fired back at Democratic critics yesterday, particularly Mr. Reid.

“The senator must not be aware of all the updates that we were providing you all, because I cannot imagine that he would engage in such personal attacks,” Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said. “I’d just assume that he is not informed of everything we were doing.”

Asked whether Mrs. Pelosi’s version of her conversation with Mr. Bush was an “accurate portrayal,” Mr. McClellan replied: “No, it’s not.” He said, “The president was just wanting to know what she was most concerned about.”

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said: “While countless Americans are pulling together to lend a helping hand, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are pointing fingers in a shameless effort to tear us apart.”

The poll conducted by the Gallup organization for CNN and USA Today found that 13 percent of Americans think Mr. Bush is “most responsible for the problems in New Orleans after the hurricane.” Eighteen percent said “federal agencies” are most to blame, and 25 percent blamed “state and local officials.” Thirty-eight percent said “no one is to blame.”

Yesterday, the White House sent Congress a $51.8 billion emergency spending request, with $50 billion slated for FEMA and the rest going to the Defense Department and the Army Corps of Engineers. That is on top of the $10.5 billion Congress passed in an emergency session last week.

Republican leaders said they will enact legislation this week to boost FEMA, which is spending $750 million a day in hurricane and flood relief. House Republicans first held a closed-door meeting last night to tamp down criticism within their own conference.

“I don’t trust FEMA any more than the agencies in the state of Louisiana,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican.

Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, said that with about 320,000 storm victims registered with FEMA, the emergency spending accounts for nearly $200,000 per person. He said he would rather Congress pass several $10 billion packages to ensure more accountability.

Congressional leaders yesterday formed a committee of senior members of both houses to investigate the preparations and response to Hurricane Katrina by government officials on local, state and national levels.

“We should not diminish in any way the fact that there were acts of heroism by individuals and victories by our first responders who risked their lives,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican. “But we all agree that in many areas the initial relief response to Hurricane Katrina was unacceptable at the local, state and federal levels. Americans deserve answers. We must do all we can to learn from this tragedy, improve the system and protect all of our citizens.”

The panel will report its findings to the Congress on Feb. 15. The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee will meet behind closed doors today to question FEMA officials on the agency’s response, which has been criticized by officials at all levels of government.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the national disaster response plan is itself a disaster and are working on an agreement to start an investigation.

“Government at all levels failed,” said Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and chairman of the committee.

“Obviously, it did not pass the test,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and ranking committee member.

• Audrey Hudson contributed to this report.

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