Bush unveils steps to help victims with federal benefits

At the White House Thursday afternoon, President Bush unveiled a new federal effort to ensure that Gulf State residents dislocated by Hurricane Katrina receive government benefits, while Treasury Secretary John Snow announced the extension of deadlines for filing tax returns and paying taxes.

The program announced by Bush is designed to ensure that childcare, housing and Medicaid benefits are given to individuals where they are on the ground after fleeing their homes.

Bush said every household would be granted $2,000 in emergency disaster relief. While registering for the $2,000 grant, recipients will begin the process of registering for further assistance that will be provided down the road.

Those who lived in counties declared disaster areas will have "evacuee status" that will lower administrative requirements for receiving benefits. Bush said he would work with Congress to reimburse states that are receiving evacuees. Bush also announced that Sept. 16 will be a national day of prayer and remembrance for the victims of Katrina.

Snow said tax deadlines will be extended until Jan. 3, and that the IRS will forgo any interest or late filing fees that would have applied. According to an IRS release, the relief includes the Sept. 15 due date for estimated taxes and for calendar-year corporate returns with automatic extensions; the Oct. 17 deadline for individuals who received a second extension for filing their individual income tax returns; and the Oct. 31 deadline for filing quarterly federal employment and excise tax returns.

IRS Commissioner Mark Everson said the action applies to devastated portions of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and to three counties in Florida.

In addition, Snow announced a program that allows employees to donate their vacation, sick or personal leave in exchange for employer cash payments made to qualified tax-exempt organizations providing relief to victims of the disaster. The donation is not counted as income for the employee, and employers can deduct the cash payment.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats formally introduced a package of regulatory changes and spending measures designed to speed the delivery of assistance to evacuees displaced by Hurricane Katrina and bolstered their criticism of GOP and White House efforts to respond to the disaster. The Democratic proposal would increase the availability of Medicare and Medicaid programs for refugees, ease eligibility rules governing disaster relief grants to businesses, and include education incentives and tax breaks for families that have taken in refugees.

At the same time, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., harshly criticized the decision by Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and ranking member Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., to close Thursday's hearing on the response to the disaster by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"I think it's wrong that it's closed, but that's what it is. They had no opportunity to have people come and testify publicly. I think we should go forward in that regard," Reid said.

Similarly, in a floor speech, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called the federal response to the disaster "a flat embarrassment to the country."

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