"Things are going remarkably well"

Don't blame the federal government for the Katrina debacle, say GOP senators. And definitely don't ask the heads of Homeland Security and FEMA to testify before Congress.

Published September 8, 2005 12:50AM (EDT)

You might think the outrage over the stumbling response to Hurricane Katrina would make senators want to rip the lid off the federal government and take a good hard look at why rescue efforts were tragically late in the Gulf Coast, even if an investigation could get uncomfortable for President Bush.

After all, lawmakers have good reason to be as "pissed" as the New Orleans mayor said he was. They have spent the last four years significantly reorganizing the federal government to respond to big disasters. They have doled out billions of tax dollars to get it done. And still thousands of people remained stranded for days in Katrina's wake, many perishing for a lack of help.

But as the Senate swung back into business on Tuesday for the first time since the cataclysmic storm, GOP senators responded to the criticism with a uniform line that Congress should not get into the business of laying blame for any possible failures. There are always going to be unhappy people with any disaster relief effort, they said.

In fact, just as one bipartisan Senate panel announced it would hold hearings to see what went wrong, several GOP senators said that top leaders at the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency should not have to testify -- raising obvious questions about the purpose of the hearings in the first place.

"I'm not one that is running around trying to fix blame," says Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who lost his own antebellum home in Pascagoula. "It never is perfect after a natural disaster." (Lott has a second home in Jackson.)

Lott says that if the Senate holds hearings about the government's response to Katrina, neither Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, nor Michael D. Brown, head of FEMA, should have to attend. "I think hearings are in order, but the first hearings should be about what we can do that would be helpful," says the former Senate majority leader. He described President Bush as "strong" in his response to the storm.

The House tends to follow directions from the White House. So if there is going to be a no-holds-barred investigation into the Katrina relief efforts, it would most likely come from the Senate, where moderates in both parties still hold considerable sway.

Yet the GOP senators walking the halls of Congress Tuesday seemed particularly sanguine and patient about the obvious shortfalls in government efforts to respond to Katrina, reflecting none of the brash rage reflected in the faces outside the Superdome and voiced by TV reporters in the past week.

"There are always mistakes that are going to be made," says Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "But you are dealing with human beings. For some people, I think it is a natural tendency to point fingers and blame. The last thing we need to do is to drag the secretary of Homeland Security and the director of FEMA in." Cornyn says both officials need to keep their eye on the ball and concentrate on relief efforts. "I think things are going remarkably well, thanks to people at the state, national and local level." Asked what Congress should do to respond to the crisis, he responds, "We have done a lot. We have appropriated $10 billion."

Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., says that he is withholding judgment on FEMA. The agency, he says, has shone in responding to hurricanes in his state over the past few years. Before any investigation in Congress, "I think we need to take a pause," Martinez says. "There will be plenty of time for us to pick over the bones" and hold hearings to see what went right and wrong in the disaster response. He does say that in the response to Katrina, "coordination obviously could have been better" between state, local and federal officials. Martinez later tells reporters that right now, "We've got no choice but to pull together as Americans."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has occasionally been a thorn in the side of the White House. However, he warns against "premature judgments" about the government's response, noting that "we were all surprised" by Katrina's scope, ferocity and damage. McCain does not provide any specifics, but he signals a willingness to follow Bush's lead on investigating any shortcomings. "Just as the president said this morning, we need to find out what we did right and what we did wrong. I agree with him."

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., the chair and the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security panel, respectively, seem at least open to questioning the government's response. "The first obligation of government is to protect its citizens," says Collins, a moderate. "In its initial response to the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, particularly in Louisiana, governments of all levels failed in this obligation."

Collins calls the response "woefully inadequate," even though forecasters gave the government plenty of lead time to prepare for the disaster. "How is it possible that almost four years to the day after the attacks on our country, with billions of dollars spent to improve our preparedness, a major area of our nation was so ill-prepared to respond to a catastrophe?"

Democrats are even quicker to criticize the response, reflecting either genuine frustration or a desire to tar Bush with the political fallout. Lieberman calls Katrina the "most significant test" of the government's overhauled disaster response plans since Sept. 11. "It obviously did not pass that test. We need to know why." He says the investigation will be guided by "an overriding and unflinching commitment to tell the truth, so our government will never repeat the mistakes that it made last week." He says the government's response made him feel "concern, grief, anger and embarrassment."

At a press conference ostensibly about the upcoming Supreme Court nominations, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is apoplectic about the response to Katrina. "You know what drives me up a wall?" he asks. "You look at what is happening at the Superdome. You could not get water in. You couldn't get doctors in. They couldn't get support in. Thank God for the press. The press was able to go in and out, and they asked a legitimate question: 'If we can get in and out of here, where, in God's name, are the people who are supposed to [bring] water, food, support?' People were dying there."

The government is now pumping billions into the relief effort, and Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., says he wants Congress to guarantee it won't be squandered. "We are burning a lot of money down there," he says. "We are going to ask for a little more accountability for how that money is being spent and where it is going."

By Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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