Lawmakers see Katrina czar as first step

Concerns that additional oversight is necessary to protect against waste, fraud and abuse linger.

Lawmakers praised the Bush administration's decision Tuesday to appoint a reconstruction czar to oversee recovery efforts in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, but many agreed Congress must take additional steps to bring effective management to the operation and protect the interests of taxpayers.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who called for a czar two months ago, said the federal government was compelled to follow his recommendation because community leaders and Congress had inundated the administration with requests. "I'm hopeful that this appointment will mean that American taxpayers will be spared from waste, fraud and abuse as we reconstruct the Gulf," he said.

But Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, disagreed, according to her spokeswoman, who said the appointment does not eliminate the need for financial accountability and oversight.

In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, lawmakers began pressuring the White House on proposals to coordinate and oversee recovery efforts, ranging from a reconstruction czar to a chief financial officer to a central board modeled after the depression-era Tennessee Valley Authority.

The administration, apparently moving to pre-empt congressional action, announced Tuesday that Donald Powell, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. since 2001, would take charge of federal recovery efforts and long-term plans to rebuild the region.

In early October, the administration made similar moves to neutralize congressional initiatives by assigning a team of inspectors general to protect against waste, fraud and abuse and ordering the repeal of an earlier move boosting the credit card limit for government purchases to $250,000.

Despite the latest move, lawmakers were still clamoring for legislative action.

Collins and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., have been pressing Senate leaders to schedule a vote on their bill that would assign a Gulf Coast watchdog mission to the special inspector general overseeing reconstruction in Iraq.

In an unpublicized letter to Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., last month, Collins and Lieberman urged action on both their bill and a measure drafted by Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., to hire a chief financial officer for the recovery effort.

The Iraq IG proposal has hit a snag with the Justice Department, which believes a congressional attempt to expand the scope of the original Iraq assignment would violate the Appointment Clause of the Constitution, according to a House GOP aide familiar with the issue.

Collins has said only that the White House opposes her bill.

The administration shot down another proposal, drafted by Senate Budget Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ranking member Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to create a Cabinet-level central board to oversee reconstruction. White House Deputy Press Secretary Trent Duffy suggested last month Bush was concerned that the senators' bill would give the federal government too strong a role.

Gregg issued a statement Tuesday saying it was "appropriate the president has moved fairly quickly to put in place someone with an accounting and auditing record, who will act as a clearinghouse and provide necessary authority."

In a separate statement, Kennedy expressed concern Powell would not report directly to the president, but to Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff instead. Kennedy also noted that Powell does not have disaster recovery experience.

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