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US Political Debate Heats Up Over How to Pay for Katrina

A political debate continues in Congress over how the government will pay for the costs of recovery from hurricane Katrina. As President Bush made his fifth visit to the hurricane disaster zone in the U.S. Gulf coast, Democrats and Republicans exchanged words over where to find the money, and the impact hurricane-related spending, which it is estimated could be as high as $200 billion, will have on the federal budget.

Congress has not settled on the method it will use to investigate shortcomings and failures in the hurricane relief effort.

As of Tuesday, it was not clear if a congressional investigation will take the form of a joint House-Senate inquiry, or if separate committees in both chambers will conduct their own probes.

In addition to figuring out how to proceed, the focus is now on accountability as billions of dollars are spent.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay says Republicans have "a duty to ensure that money goes to the right places, and comes from the right places." But he rejects calls for tax increases to offset spending, calling them part of a Democrat agenda.

"The so-called [hurricane] Katrina tax hikes are not about Katrina, they are about tax hikes. They will only serve to balloon the over-sized, under-responsive emergency management system that broke down three weeks ago in the wake of the hurricane," he said.

Congress has already appropriated $62 billion for hurricane relief. Lawmakers are examining various ways to offset spending with reductions in other areas of the budget, another controversial issue.

Democrats responded by renewing attacks on Bush tax cuts they say have unfairly favored wealthy Americans.

"All Americans would expect that the top one percent of the income-earners in this country who received most of the benefit from the administration's tax cut, should have to give up some of their tax cuts in order to relieve the burden on the people in the Gulf coast. It's only fair," said Congressman Dennis Kucinich.

Democrats also pressed demands for an independent commission, modeled on the one that investigated the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

And they broadened the scope of their proposals to include an Anti-Fraud Commission, which House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi asserts is necessary because of a poor Republican record on oversight.

"Accountability has been undermined as the Republican Congress has abandoned its oversight responsibility. When President Clinton was in the White House, it was oversight, oversight, oversight. And that is Congress appropriate role. When President Bush became president they abandoned, abdicated their responsibility in that regard," she said.

One House Republican congressional aide described as political opportunism Democrat's use of the issue of abuses by contractors in Iraq to support their call for such a commission.

The debate takes place amid some new public opinion polls, one showing that 80 percent of Americans supporting creation of an independent commission, while 57 percent disapprove of President Bush's handling of the disaster.

Speaking in New Orleans Tuesday on his fifth visit to the hurricane zone, President Bush said he is doing everything possible to help the recovery effort. "We are trying to help get this recovery going by plowing through the paperwork requirements as fast as possible," he said.

President Bush has appointed his domestic homeland security adviser, Fran Townsend, to lead an internal inquiry into the federal government's response to hurricane Katrina.

But that opened yet another avenue of criticism from Democrats, who say it amounts to the administration investigating itself.

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