House, Senate set to move hurricane relief packages

Bills just the beginning of assistance, lawmakers say.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said Tuesday he will look to push through at least three legislative packages related to Hurricane Katrina -- addressing immediate relief and cleanup issues as well as mid- and long-range economic and health challenges posed by the disaster.

Frist mostly has cleared the floor calendar, pushing off a vote on estate tax repeal to an unspecified date later this fall. GOP aides said over the weekend that aside from Katrina-related bills and the nomination of John Roberts to become the next chief justice of the Supreme Court, nothing on the Senate's agenda before the hurricane is assured of seeing action.

Even the annual appropriations process has been affected, with Frist deciding to bring the Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill to the floor Thursday since it will fund a number of key Katrina-related activities.

In a floor speech on Tuesday, Frist said he hopes to quickly move a package of immediate relief measures to provide for the basic necessities of Gulf Coast refugees, as well as for the cleanup.

"The federal government has a major role as we look at health and social services and housing, and when you look at food and we look at shelter," Frist said. Frist also said the chamber will take up mid-range and long-term responses that will help put "the Gulf Coast back on a fast-track to recovery."

With allegations of price-gouging by gasoline retailers, Frist also delivered a stern warning that Congress will not tolerate such practices.

"I do want to call upon the energy industry ... to be responsible corporate actors. If not, there is going to be a real focus placed by this Congress because they absolutely must respond appropriately," Frist warned.

President Bush intends to seek $40 billion to cover the next phase of the recovery, the Associated Press reported.

Senate Democrats on Tuesday called for Congress to commit to spending at least $150 billion for recovery and cleanup projects. Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in a statement argued that $150 billion likely will be the minimum needed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies.

Democrats released Monday their set of legislative priorities related to Katrina. According to a summary, Democrats are seeking a package that includes immediate access to Medicaid for evacuees, a waiver of residency and asset proof for Medicaid benefits, eliminating co-payments providing compensation to healthcare workers, and eliminating penalties for failure to sign up for Medicare Part B in time.

It also would authorize emergency housing vouchers to refugees and expedited applications as well as tax incentives for families who house refugees. It targets education to refugee children and would authorize money to refugees to pay for basic needs such as food and clothing and authorize financial relief to victims and the National Guard.

The House will also approve a broad relief package later this week to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, told reporters Tuesday. The package will address the "plight of people on the ground" and will not include emergency funding or tax provisions.

DeLay said GOP leaders will meet with committee chairmen Tuesday evening to begin pulling together the package, but said it likely will include provisions on Pell Grants to aid students who withdrew from college because of the hurricane, as well as clarifying the Federal Emergency Management Agency's ability to transfer money to private organizations, suspend certain "red tape" requirements for unemployment and Social Security benefits to help people made homeless by the hurricane, as well as allow broad use of surplus federal unemployment funds to aid victims. "There's just a whole line of lists of those kinds of things," DeLay said.

DeLay did not offer funding estimates for further hurricane relief, but said the $10.5 billion approved Friday was "only initial" spending. DeLay dismissed statements on Tuesday by Senate Minority Leader Reid, who estimated costs of up to $150 billion. "I don't know; I don't think anyone knows," DeLay said, adding that anyone who offers blind estimates is playing "political games."

DeLay also said Congress would conduct oversight hearings on the problems with relief efforts at the federal, state and local level. "We need to determine what happened so we can fix it," he said. "It is my opinion that the whole system broke down."

DeLay, however, said calls for an outside commission to investigate the response, similar to the commission created to investigate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was unnecessary.

DeLay dismissed suggestions that price caps on gasoline or tax increases might blunt the economic impact of the hurricane. "The worst thing we can do in these situations is attack the economy," he said.

DeLay also said it was "way too premature" to decide whether FEMA should be pulled out of the Homeland Security Department's jurisdiction.