GOP to create bipartisan oversight panel on Hurricane Katrina efforts

Chairmen may not be guaranteed a seat on the panel, and Democrats may not be given equal representation on the committee.

House and Senate GOP leaders agreed Wednesday to create a bipartisan, bicameral committee to conduct hearings on response and relief efforts to Hurricane Katrina.

However, specifics on the committee's structure and when the hearings will be conducted have not yet been agreed upon, GOP sources said.

The details could spark tension among turf-conscious committee chairmen and heighten existing partisan tensions in Katrina's aftermath between Republicans and Democrats. GOP sources indicated Wednesday that chairmen may not be guaranteed a seat on the panel, and that Democrats may not be given equal representation on the committee -- similar to how most standing committees are currently structured.

"The questions of whether there are equal representation and subpoena power for Democrats are aspects we are watching closely," said a Democratic leadership aide.

A House GOP aide said the panel would not have legislative authority, but would report findings of its review by early next year. Any legislative fixes that would come out of the review would go through the normal committee process in both chambers.

Additionally, Congress is not expected to begin hearings for several weeks, as members are reluctant to bring people on the ground that are needed for relief efforts in the Gulf States to Washington in order to testify.

"People need to be doing their jobs right now," Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, told reporters following a closed-door members' briefing Tuesday evening.

There has already been mild confusion in the House over how to proceed with hearings after Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., pre-empted House GOP leaders Tuesday by announcing his panel would hold hearings. DeLay later told reporters those hearings would not occur.

"I don't think so," DeLay said. "We don't need it." It was unclear at presstime if the agreement would alter a separate investigation led by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday she would support a bipartisan, bicameral committee, noting that she asked House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., for a similar task force last week. However, Pelosi heightened her criticism of President Bush and FEMA chief Michael Brown, who is heading up the government's response efforts, arguing that Bush is "in denial" about the government's response to Hurricane Katrina and called his demeanor "dangerous." Pelosi asked Bush during a White House meeting Tuesday to fire Brown, but Bush rejected the idea and Pelosi said Bush was "oblivious" to criticism that Brown is not up to the job.

Pelosi, joined by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Homeland Security ranking member Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., also criticized how money has been appropriated since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, citing communication failures among first responders in the Gulf region.

"How can it be that four years after 9/11 we still do not have real-time communication among first responders?" asked Pelosi. "It was a clear problem four years ago. It's a clear problem now."

A Democratic aide said Democrats will likely appoint ranking members of jurisdiction and members who have been affected by Hurricane Katrina to the committee once it convenes.