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Congress Poised to Approve More Aid for Hurricane Relief Operations

The U.S. House and Senate are expected to approve as early as Thursday an additional $51.8 billion to cover the costs of federal hurricane relief efforts along the Gulf Coast. .

The money, which President Bush requested Wednesday, is in addition to the $10.5 billion lawmakers approved last week.

Most of the funds are to go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, which is coordinating relief operations. The rest will go to the military, which is helping evacuate victims of the hurricane, and the Army Corps of Engineers, which is working to repair breached levees in New Orleans and drain floodwaters from the city.

Some opposition Democrats called for a much larger response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, especially in New Orleans, which sustained particularly extensive damage. The Senate's top Democrat, Senator Harry Reid, called for an operation much like the effort to rebuild Europe after World War II.

"We need a massive Marshall-type plan to rebuild New Orleans," he said.

The White House says it expects to ask for more money in the coming weeks.

Democrats Wednesday continued their criticism of the Bush administration's policies that they say contributed to the disaster. They cite the decision to cut FEMA's budget and cuts in funding for maintaining New Orleans' levees.

Senator Tom Carper (Democrat) of Delaware said, "I fear that a storm which could have cost tens of billions of dollars may cost more than 100 billion to repair the damage, a lot of it in New Orleans. A storm that could have cost us hundreds of lives will probably cost us thousands of lives. It didn't have to be."

Democrats say the federal government was also too slow to respond to the crisis. Republicans, too, have been critical. The chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Senator Susan Collins, called the response woefully inadequate. Her panel plans to open public hearings on the matter next week.

In what appears to be an effort by congressional leaders to discourage other committees from starting their own probes of the hurricane's aftermath, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, accompanied by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, announced plans for a joint House-Senate committee to look into the government's response and how it can be improved.

"Americans deserve answers. We must do all we can to learn from this tragedy, improve the system and protect all of our citizens," Senator Frist said.

The joint committee is to report its findings to Congress no later than Feburary 15 of next year.