GOP-led panel set to launch probe of Katrina response

Lawmakers will have their first chance to grill former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown next week about the government's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, House Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis, R- Va., said Wednesday.

Davis added that a select panel approved by the House last week to investigate the rescue and relief efforts will hold its first public hearing Thursday -- with or without Democrats.

"I think there is a feeling that [Americans] don't want us to sit and wait" for GOP and Democratic leaders to reconcile their differences, he said.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and ranking member Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who were tapped by their leaders to head the Senate's investigation, already have held hearings. It is unclear whether they will attend the inaugural meeting of the select committee.

House and Senate leaders are working on a deal to combine the investigations. GOP leaders are expected to name House Republicans to the bipartisan panel on Wednesday. Two committee chairmen, one member from the Gulf Coast area and mostly rank-and-file lawmakers with expertise on the issues will comprise the GOP side, Davis said. He added that if Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., still refuses to assign Democrats to the panel by the end of the week, he would invite Democratic members from the Gulf Coast region to question Brown at Tuesday's meeting.

"I would hope they wouldn't pass up the opportunity to cross-examine Michael Brown," Davis said.

Pelosi was unwavering Wednesday, according to a spokeswoman, who reiterated comments Pelosi made last week that Democrats could represent their regions and ask questions, but as leader her job is to ensure they have "the strongest possible voice." She and other Democrats have called the select panel a sham, arguing Republicans cannot objectively investigate the Bush administration. Democrats also are seeking equal representation on the panel and subpoena power. House Republicans would have an 11-9 advantage and possess the authority to call witnesses.

Davis said he was "mystified" that Pelosi has argued that the House Government Reform Committee should conduct oversight hearings but balked at the select committee. He argued Democrats would have more authority and greater representation on the select committee than on the Government Reform panel, which has 23 Republicans and 18 Democrats.

Also, Davis said, he must obtain member approval on the select panel to subpoena witnesses, a process he can bypass as Government Reform chairman.

Davis said Republicans will launch their investigation Thursday with officials from the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center. The hearing will focus on the chronology of hurricane data and then move to the communication failures, with Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff and state and local officials on the list of witnesses for future hearings.