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US Political Debate Heats Up Over Response to Hurricane Katrina

Republicans and Democrats say providing relief to victims of hurricane Katrina must be the top priority in coming days and weeks as Congress gets back to work in Washington, D.C. But while there is much bipartisan agreement on the need for an investigation into the federal government response, Democrats are focusing criticism on President Bush who they say must assume much of the responsibility.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay says he does not think a special commission is needed to examine what went wrong with rescue and relief operations, modeled on the panel that investigated failures before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid disagrees. "We are going to have an independent commission to study what went wrong. People may not do it today or think it's a good idea today, but mark my word. It is going to happen," he said.

Senator Reid and Congressman DeLay were among congressional leaders meeting with President Bush Tuesday.

But Mr. DeLay was adamant Republicans will not allow their key policy priorities to fall victim to what they see as attempts by opposition Democrats to use the hurricane response controversy to weaken President Bush.

That means no price controls to deal with rising gasoline prices, no reduction in gas taxes, no taxes aimed at oil companies that might be benefiting from high prices, and no rollback of income tax cuts approved by the Republican-controlled Congress.

Democrats for their part say everything should be on the table, including Bush administration tax cuts they say have hurt poor and middle class Americans.

House Democrats take broad aim at what say have been Republican and administration policies that created the conditions for failure. "When you saw the stories about the poor people in New Orleans being left behind, we could see them being left behind because they were in the water, they were very visible," he said. "But we have a federal budget policy which is leaving behind the poor and the middle class all across the board," said Wisconsin Congressman David Obey.

House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says the president must assume most of the responsibility for the slow initial government response. "The buck (blame) stops at the president's desk. The president said he is going to lead the investigation into what went wrong. He need look only in the mirror for starters. He appointed a person to head FEMA who had absolutely no credentials to head a Federal Emergency Management Agency," he said.

Mrs. Pelosi has urged President Bush to fire FEMA Director Michael Brown.

Republican Mississippi Senator Trent Lott added his voice to a growing number of lawmakers who feel FEMA should be taken out of the Homeland Security Department, where it was moved after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. "We should never have put FEMA in [the] Homeland Security [Department]. Heck, we thought about it. Heck, we did it. Who are we going to blame that on? We did that," he said.

House Majority Leader DeLay says that would be premature and objects to those who place all the blame on FEMA. "There were mistakes made by everybody involved. But to say that FEMA was a total failure is to say that those hard-working people who, when I got there Sunday, had been up working 24 hours a day, no sleep, doing the things that needed to be done to save lives on the ground in New Orleans, and that's not what is going-on on the ground. There were decisions that needed to be made that weren't made, and we shouldn't be dwelling on that issue," he said.

As the political debate surrounding hurricane relief heats up, House and Senate Republicans confirmed plans to move ahead with new legislation providing the next installment of aid for hurricane relief and cleanup, put at 40-billion dollars on top of 10-point-five billion approved last week.

A Senate committee held a hearing into the effects of damage from hurricane Katrina on gasoline prices, amid calls by some lawmakers for an investigation of alleged price-gouging. A similar hearing is scheduled Wednesday in the House Energy Committee.

Also, the House Government Reform Committee holds an oversight hearing next week on the government response to hurricane Katrina.