Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Republicans tried to limit the political damage from the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina — with President Bush, members of Congress and military leaders yesterday all promising to look into the failures.

“What I intend to do is lead an investigation to find out what went right and what went wrong,” the president said after meeting with Cabinet members at the White House.

Republicans said they have received the message that there is frustration over the federal response.

“Have I got an earful? You betcha,” said Sen. Norm Coleman, Minnesota Republican, who said he heard about it from voters at Minnesota’s state fair this weekend.

But even as Republicans promised investigations, they made it clear that the first failure was at the state and local levels, where governments are charged with preparation and the first response to disasters.

“I’m a former mayor,” Mr. Coleman said. “The leadership starts at the local level. I didn’t see the local mayor. I didn’t hear from the mayor.”

His focus on state and local officials was echoed by Mr. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and top congressional Republicans, who said the federal response fell short because, in Mr. Coleman’s words, “the federal officials didn’t do a good enough job of filling that void fast enough.”

The senator from Minnesota said that the federal government must now turn its immediate failure into an opportunity to show it is in control.

Now, both Congress and the president are rushing to fill that void with money.

Mr. Bush was expected to send Congress a reported $40 billion emergency spending package last night, five days after a $10.5 billion emergency bill passed.

The top Democrat in the Senate said the final cost could be $150 billion — the first long-term cost estimate placed on the storm by a high official.

“Through my conversations with officials on the ground and in consultation with Senator Mary Landrieu [of Louisiana], I believe that the recovery and relief operations will cost up to and could exceed $150 billion,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

At the Pentagon yesterday, the nation’s two top military leaders rejected criticism that they were too slow in deploying troops to storm-ravaged Gulf states, saying they are in the middle of the largest domestic disaster relief effort in U.S. history.

Mr. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, Joint Chiefs chairman, said Pentagon planners made contingencies once Katrina strengthened in the Gulf of Mexico and ordered thousands of troops and relief supplies once the request was made.

Mr. Rumsfeld ordered a mandatory “lessons learned” on what the armed forces had done right and wrong in the week-old disaster that likely killed thousands in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

He added that the military’s involvement will not affect the U.S. effort in Iraq.

“We have the forces, the capabilities and the intention to fully prosecute the global war on terror while responding to this unprecedented humanitarian crisis here at home,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.

At the White House, Mr. Bush said a thorough review is necessary to prepare for the next catastrophe.

“We still live in an unsettled world. We want to make sure that we can respond properly if there’s a WMD attack or another major storm,” he said.

Even as the president was trying to put out fires, he might have created more ill will at an afternoon meeting with congressional leaders.

During the meeting, Mr. Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, tried to learn the size of the new spending request, but Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua B. Bolten said he did not have a figure, Mr. Reid’s spokesman said.

As the leaders left the meeting, they found out from press reports that someone had told the Associated Press the total would be $40 billion.

Meanwhile, there was disagreement among Republicans over how quickly to proceed on the investigations.

The Republicans who run the House and Senate oversight committees both said they will begin next week, even though House leaders and Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican whose home was destroyed by the storm, asked them not to distract from the relief effort.

Hearings called by House Government Reform Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III seemed to catch House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert off guard yesterday when a reporter asked about it at a press conference.

“What we don’t want to have happen is the people who are on the ground in the Gulf states have to come up here to talk to 13 or 14 different groups,” said Mr. Hastert, Illinois Republican.

Rep. Mark Foley said particular blame lies at the feet of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and, by extension, Congress, which put FEMA under the Department of Homeland Security.

The Florida Republican said the agency had flaws in responding to the hurricanes in Florida last year.

“There’ll be a lot of blame to go around, and we can all reasonably take a share of it,” he said, though he also said political blame will recede with time. “It gets worse for a while and finally people see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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