Congress to hold special session on Katrina relief

The Senate and House will convene in extraordinary special sessions Thursday evening and Friday afternoon to approve emergency funding to Gulf Coast states that have been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The Senate plans to approve the spending in a session tentatively set for 10 p.m. this evening, according to a senior Senate Republican leadership aide. The House will meet at noon Friday, the chief administrative officer said in a notice sent to House offices this afternoon.

Both chambers are expected to approve an initial disbursement of $10.5 billion in hurricane relief by unanimous consent. Although any member of the House or Senate can demand a quorum call or roll-call vote, the proceedings are expected to move expeditiously and with few members in attendance.

In a statement issued Thursday afternoon, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said: "The administration notified the leadership of the Congress earlier today that [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] was running low on funds for immediate assistance and would need funds sooner than the next regularly scheduled session, Sept. 6. Upon this notification, we immediately consulted with [House Minority] Leader [Nancy] Pelosi and [Senate Minority] Leader [Harry] Reid and we all agreed to invoke our emergency powers and called the Congress to reconvene."

The top five congressional leaders held a conference call Thursday afternoon with President Bush to discuss the $10.5 billion spending bill, which includes $10 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $500 million for the Pentagon. In a conference call late Thursday afternoon with reporters, Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten said that the final tab for clean-up and reconstruction will be "almost impossible to determine... until [New Orleans] is basically drained out."

Meanwhile, a GOP leadership aide said today that the Senate would proceed on schedule with the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, and that the additional supplemental spending bills related to Katrina would not have an effect on that process. The first Roberts hearing is slated for next Tuesday afternoon.

The s decision to schedule the special session followed Republican leaders' apparent rejection Wednesday of a request by Pelosi for a special session this week. GOP aides had indicated at the time that Congress could wait to take action following the Labor Day weekend.

Hastert may have prompted some additional political fallout when he told the Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago newspaper that "there are some real tough questions to ask about how you go about rebuilding" New Orleans. "It doesn't make sense to me," he said in the interview posted on the newspaper's Web site -- in an apparent reference to spending billions of dollars for reconstruction of the city.

Hastert's comments prompted sharp criticism from Jim Dean, the head of Democracy for America and brother of Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean. "We will be here to help the people of New Orleans, no matter how long it takes and we hope that the speaker of the United States House will be too," Jim Dean declared.

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