Congress to act quickly on Bush's $51.8 billion aid request

Hurricane Katrina continued to dominate the congressional agenda Wednesday as the White House sent up a $51.8 billion supplemental aid request, while House and Senate GOP leaders acknowledged the budget reconciliation process of non-Katrina items will be delayed as a result of more pressing matters.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Congress would clear the hurricane aid this week, which would be enough to last the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- which is burning through money at the rate of nearly $2 billion per day -- until the end of this month. The package is to last for five weeks and includes $50 billion for FEMA, $1.4 billion for the Pentagon and $400 million for the Army Corps of Engineers.

At a press briefing late Wednesday afternoon, Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua Bolten said he expects about half of FEMA's allocation to be used for direct payments to Hurricane Katrina victims, to assist them with housing and other immediate needs. The remainder of FEMA's allotment will likely go toward ground logistics, including the removal of debris.

The Pentagon's funds are aimed mainly at repairing Defense facilities damaged by the hurricane, Bolten said.

But one of the supplemental package's strengths is that the funding would be flexible, Bolten said. He also offered assurances that the money is targeted directly to areas affected by the hurricane and said there are mechanisms in place to prevent it from getting diverted to other causes.

The supplemental is the second relief package proposed by the Bush administration and will not be the last, Bolten said. He declined to speculate on the total amount that will be needed.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the request would focus on immediate needs, with more funding to be sought at a later date for longer-term disaster relief projects. The House is expected to take up the measure Thursday, and Frist said the Senate would follow suit before the end of the week. Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., acknowledged that Congress and the White House misjudged when passing a $10.5 billion stopgap last week. "It appears we're going to have to act before two weeks are up," he said.

Estimates of the total cost of Katrina relief and reconstruction keep rising -- to more than $200 billion by some estimates. Immediate deficit concerns appear to be falling by the wayside, though Bolten said he does not expect the relief effort to change the medium- to long-term outlook for deficit reduction efforts.

GOP leaders served notice that the budget reconciliation process and other outstanding issues will remain on track, if delayed by at least two weeks. "This Congress is capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time," Hastert said, mentioning the fiscal 2006 appropriations process, immigration and tax cuts as well as reconciliation as items remaining high on the agenda. House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, said he agreed to delay most non-Katrina related legislation, "but we should not be distracted by this or anything else to continue to our efforts to reform government."

Senate Budget Chairman Judd Gregg. R-N.H., said that while no formal agreement has been reached, he and Frist have discussed delaying the reconciliation process.

"We all know we're going to have to put this off because of the present intensity of the Katrina issues, but whether it's two weeks, three weeks, I don't know. But the view is we're going to still execute this reconciliation package in a timely manner," Gregg said.

Frist chief of staff Eric Ueland said the majority leader is weighing his options and should announce his decision within the next 48 hours. Meanwhile, House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., said he envisions three separate bills moving, one per week over the next three weeks, beginning with a vote Thursday on freeing up funds under programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and also encouraging charitable donations.

"We're not putting a lot of new money out there; it's freeing up money that's there already," Thomas said. That would then be followed by funds for infrastructure repairs and then bills aimed at longer-term recovery.