WASHINGTON - President Bush promised yesterday to investigate "what went right and what went wrong" in the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, even as he deflected questions about who is to blame.
Bush said he will dispatch Vice President Dick Cheney to the gulf region tomorrow to "assess our recovery efforts" and remove bureaucratic hurdles to helping victims displaced by the storm.
The president plans to ask Congress as early as today for a second emergency infusion of "tens of billions" of dollars for the operation, on top of the $10.5 billion approved last week, according to an administration official. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said he expected a request of between $40 billion and $50 billion.
Bush worked to demonstrate a sense of urgency about storm recovery efforts as he was buffeted by criticism that the government's response has been slow and inadequate. He spent the day meeting with senior officials and talking about his administration's efforts in multiple TV appearances from the White House.
"This administration's not going to rest until every life can be saved, until families are reconnected, until this recovery is complete," Bush said after a meeting of his Cabinet convened to discuss the hurricane.
Bush said his immediate goals for addressing Katrina's disastrous aftermath included completing search and recovery efforts, restoring "essential services," draining floodwaters and removing debris from storm-ravaged areas, and "assessing public health and safety matters."
"A lot of people are doing good work," Bush said, "but we've got a heck of a lot more work to do."
Lawmakers, including some Republicans, are demanding to know how the administration could claim to be prepared for the possibility of a 9/11-like strike, when a natural disaster spotted days in advance was able to sow confusion, dysfunction and chaos at all levels of government.
`An unsettled world'
Bush said he would look, "over time," at successes and failures of the government's response, acknowledging that "we still live in an unsettled world" in which the government must be prepared for everything from a terrorist attack using unconventional weapons to another natural disaster.
To investigate the matter now, Bush suggested, would disrupt the recovery effort.
"One of the things that people want us to do here is to play a blame game. We've got to solve problems. We're problem solvers. There'll be ample time for people to figure out what went right and what went wrong," he said.
But Congress is not waiting. The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee has launched an investigation into what Chairwoman Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican, called the government's "immense failure" in responding to Katrina, which, she said, raises disturbing questions about the nation's preparedness for another terrorist strike.
Democrats planned to seize an opportunity to press their oft-repeated argument that Bush has shortchanged homeland security efforts, diverting billions to the war in Iraq while leaving the home front vulnerable. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California scheduled a news conference this morning where Democrats and first responders are expected to lambaste Bush for leaving the nation at risk.
Bush's top aides worked to reverse the damage done to the president's image in the days immediately after the storm, when the sluggish government response was personified by Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Brown was widely criticized for appearing ill-informed and defensive in public appearances.
Yesterday it was Bush who emerged several times before TV cameras in an effort to show his government's concern for hurricane victims, and the actions he said his administration was taking to help.
Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said Bush was spending "most of his time" on Katrina relief efforts, and recounted an "action-focused" Cabinet meeting, saying that officials "continue to work around the clock" to address the storm's aftermath.
Bush received briefings yesterday from Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary in charge of leading the recovery operation, and from officials monitoring the impact on energy supplies. He met with leaders of faith-based groups spearheading efforts to benefit Katrina's victims, and with congressional leaders planning to overhaul their legislative agenda to respond to the hurricane.
Bush announced several steps his administration was taking to help storm victims, including making sure they receive government checks for benefits such as Social Security and unemployment; offering students extensions and flexibility on education loans; and crafting a plan to help school districts absorb the cost of educating additional students displaced by Katrina.
Sheila Tate, a former Reagan White House spokeswoman, said Bush's team was playing catch-up after having misread the emotional public response to the hurricane.