Opinions divided over whether Bush cares

Members of Congress promise careful oversight of spending for relief

Katrina's Wake

September 16, 2005|By Gwyneth K. Shaw, Robert Little and Matthew Hay Brown | Gwyneth K. Shaw, Robert Little and Matthew Hay Brown,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

In the waiting room of the West Jefferson Medical Center - one of only three operating hospitals in the New Orleans area - people jeered when President Bush came on the television last night, standing in the city's famous Jackson Square.

When the president praised rescue workers for bringing food to victims of Hurricane Katrina, a man in a wheelchair stood and shouted, "What about medication?"

Four members of the Krummel family, all of them residents of the city's West Bank - and all in varying degrees of homelessness since the storm swept through - watched as they waited for news about their father, in the hospital for a heart condition.

"That guy forgot about us," said Jerome Krummel, pointing at the television hanging from the wall.

"My life's been hell for three weeks, and he doesn't care," said Kevin Krummel. "He could have sent more military and more food earlier if he'd wanted to."

But at a Days Inn in Houston, Lottie Booth nodded when the president talked about jobs going to residents of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

"That's what I wanted to hear," said the 61-year-old great-grandmother, who was rescued from her inundated house in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward and has stayed in a succession of shelters and hotels ever since.

By the time Bush finished speaking, Booth was near tears.

"It really got to me," she said. "That was a beautiful speech."

"Yes, it was," agreed her friend Thelma Gray. "He had compassion for the people. It isn't true what they say about him."

Gray, a 54-year-old food services manager from Metairie, La., had said before the speech that she wanted Bush to explain why the victims of the storm "weren't treated right."

Booth, frustrated by a journey that has taken her from the Superdome to a friend's house in San Antonio to the Astrodome to the hotel in North Houston, wanted to know when she might be able to go back home.

Neither woman got the answers she sought. But they said they didn't mind.

"A lot of mistakes was made, but it looks like they're going to turn it around," Gray said.

In Washington, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings also thought Bush had turned a corner - if he can pull it off.

"I think he made some very bold proposals, but I think he also knows he's got to back them up," said the Baltimore Democrat, who was one of the administration's earliest and toughest critics.

Cummings, a former president of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he recognized several ideas that the group and its allies had suggested to the White House in recent days.

"I got a feeling that, just maybe, him seeing the devastation could have possibly been a life-altering event for him," Cummings said of Bush. "And now, the key for him is to make sure that he works with his party with the same zeal he had when he went into Iraq, to take that zest and go to the Gulf Coast and do the things that need to be done."

After Bush's speech, Republican House leaders pledged to support what they called a strong, but challenging, plan for rebuilding.

They said Congress, which has already approved more than $62 billion in emergency spending and a flurry of bills aimed at easing the plight of the storm's victims, would act quickly. The top priority after immediate relief, they said, is making sure that the damage done to the nation's economy by the hurricane is temporary.

"Only a strong national economy that creates jobs can afford the kind of expenses we're talking about," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican.

But Bush said nothing about how the government might pay for the huge cost of rebuilding - expected to top $200 billion - at a time when the war in Iraq is still consuming large amounts of money and the federal budget is running a deficit of more than $300 billion this year.

The huge amount of federal spending has drawn critics in Congress, where some Republicans have complained that safeguards are needed to ensure the money isn't wasted. They also want to see budget cuts in other areas, to limit the additional burden on the federal budget deficit.

"I find it very difficult to believe that this much money can be spent, this fast, responsibly," said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican who represents Western Maryland.

Bush said in his speech that a team of federal overseers would monitor the various initiatives, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert said last night that he is open to suggestions about how to cut spending in other areas to help ease the burden of the relief money.

"We're listening to our members," said Hastert, a Republican from Illinois. "If there are good ideas of how to do this, we'll listen to folks."

Rep. Jerry Lewis, the California Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, also announced yesterday that the panel's survey and investigations staff - which includes former federal law enforcement officials and auditors - would keep tabs on the money.

"We will have strict oversight of every dime spent by a government agency to ensure the wise and efficient use of the taxpayers' money," said DeLay.

Lawmakers also agreed with Bush that accountability for the sluggish federal response - and finding ways to improve it - were a top priority. With Democrats still calling for an independent commission to look at the problems, the House voted 224-188 yesterday to empower a joint committee, in cooperation with the Senate, to run the probe.

All six of Maryland's Democratic House members voted against the committee, and party leaders continued to refuse to appoint members to it.

Hastert named Virginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III to head the House effort. Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican, is the lead senator.

"Through this process, we hope to get the American people the answers that they deserve," Hastert said.

Gwyneth K. Shaw reported from Washington, Robert Little from New Orleans and Matthew Hay Brown from Houston.

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