Clash near on future of FEMA

Senate panel would rebuild agency

White House would strengthen it


WASHINGTON -- Congress and the White House are headed toward a collision over one of the big questions left unresolved in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina - whether to beef up the nation's key disaster response agency within the Department of Homeland Security or to create a politically independent agency to handle national emergencies.

Weeks before the hurricane season officially begins June 1, a Senate committee called yesterday for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be dismantled and reconstituted as a new, stronger agency within Homeland Security.

Many House members, meanwhile, are pushing to restore FEMA to its pre-2003 status as an independent agency, this time with Cabinet rank and added funding muscle.

And as President Bush made his 11th visit to the Gulf Coast since the storm hit Aug. 29, the White House urged a strengthening - but no reshuffling - of current operations.

"Now is not the time to really look at moving organizational boxes," said Frances F. Townsend, the president's domestic security adviser, who went with Bush to Louisiana and Mississippi yesterday.

The disagreement is an echo of the debate that erupted after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the White House initially resisted congressional efforts to reorganize all domestic security and disaster preparedness agencies under one roof. It eventually agreed to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which united 22 programs, employing more than 170,000 people, in March 2003.

This time, the debate takes place in an election year, when politicians facing the voters are under pressure not just to write reports about what went wrong but to take action to fix the problems. Adding to the unpredictability is the deep divide within both political parties over the best course of action.

There is one significant point of agreement: FEMA botched the federal response to Katrina, which killed more than 1,300 people along the Gulf Coast and left hundreds of thousands homeless. So far, the federal tab for relief and reconstruction costs has reached $100 billion.

"FEMA is discredited, demoralized and dysfunctional," said Sen. Susan M. Collins a Maine Republican whose Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee issued its recommendations yesterday. "It is beyond repair. Just tweaking the organizational chart will not solve the problem."

Collins, the panel's chairman, and its ranking Democrat, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, are proposing that FEMA's functions be absorbed into a new agency, the National Preparedness and Response Authority, which would remain under the secretary of homeland security but have broad jurisdiction and direct access to the president during crises.

"This will be a dramatically different agency from FEMA," Collins said.

But Collins and Lieberman, who plan to start drafting legislation next week, face an uphill battle in the Senate, where Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, shares the White House view that this is no time for a reorganization.

"We're very leery, headed into hurricane season, of rewriting the entire FEMA operation," said a Frist spokesman who asked not to be identified. "As the storms come ashore, FEMA personnel would be diverting time to testify on a rewrite."

Many in the House, including Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who led the House Select Committee on Katrina that issued its report in February, support making FEMA a separate agency, with Cabinet rank.

"Rebranding FEMA doesn't fix the problem; it just puts a new acronym on it," said David Marin, the select committee's director and a Davis spokesman.

"Expecting the agency to move out and become independent of DHS once a crisis begins adds uncertainty to an already intense moment," he added. "We see this as a clumsy attempt to straddle the FEMA-in-or-out question."

Defenders of the Senate proposal say it is being mischaracterized.

The new agency's leaders "would have to have emergency management experience, which would put an end to the Bush administration's penchant for rewarding political types with important security jobs," said a Senate staff member who asked not to be identified.

Yesterday, a bipartisan group of congressmen - including Reps. Peter T. King, a New York Republican, and Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat who is the chairman and top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee - endorsed legislation along the lines of the Senate recommendation that would keep an enhanced FEMA within Homeland Security to ensure that it has all the resources of the larger department, such the Coast Guard and the operations center.

"FEMA must be equipped with the proper resources, communications and leadership to handle a worst-case scenario," King said.

Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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