Blanco defends storm aid

La. governor testifies on handling of Katrina, asks Congress to aid in rebuilding process


WASHINGTON -- Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco gave no ground to Capitol Hill critics yesterday, saying she and other state officials did all they could to save lives after Hurricane Katrina and that she feared Congress' focus on missteps was an excuse to deny more money for reconstruction.

Blanco offered her first public accounting to Congress on her handling of the crisis as House and Senate negotiators wrangled over a new aid package for the states hit by the powerful storm.

"Looking back is a necessary exercise, and we will improve our response," Blanco told a House committee. "But none of this negates the obligation of this Congress to help American citizens from the Gulf Coast who literally and figuratively are feeling they have been left out in the cold."

The sometimes sharp words Blanco exchanged with lawmakers and the difficult negotiations over additional funding underscored the increasingly partisan and politically charged atmosphere surrounding efforts to rebuild in the hurricane's aftermath.

House and Senate committees are wrapping up probes into the much-criticized response by federal, state and local officials to the disaster and preparing to issue their findings in February. The assignment of blame should help shape the debate in next year's congressional campaigns over which party is most capable of governing effectively.

Democrats have said the administration's failure to mount a quick, effective relief effort resulted from of its shortchanging of the Federal Emergency Response Agency and other offices and programs in order to pour resources into the fight against terrorism, the war in Iraq and tax cuts skewed toward wealthy Americans.

Republicans have responded that incompetence of local and state officials hampered efforts by the White House and FEMA to help. Days after the hurricane hit, Republican lawmakers charged that Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, both Democrats, failed to convey their needs quickly or clearly enough and inadequately implemented their own emergency plan.

Blanco may be the politician with the most at stake in this debate. Her popularity has sagged since the hurricane, and if she is to have a chance at winning re-election in 2007, "state voters must see some substantial progress in hurricane recovery and rebuilding," said Wayne Parent, a political scientist at Louisiana State University.

He added that Blanco's testimony yesterday offered her "a significant opportunity to begin to repair some of the damage to her reputation."

Mary Curtius writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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