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Republican Priorities Sidelined by Hurricane Katrina


The federal response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is dominating the agenda of the U.S. Congress and threatening Republican legislative priorities.

The Republican-dominated Congress had planned to return from its summer recess this month to focus on expanding tax relief and make cuts in social programs.

House and Senate Republicans were preparing spending cuts to Medicaid, which provides health care coverage to the poor and disabled, as well as reductions in student loan, housing and food stamp programs. Under a budget resolution passed by Congress earlier this year, the proposed cuts were to be hammered out by September 16.

But that was before Hurricane Katrina.

"In light of Hurricane Katrina, we will be changing our focus," said Mr. Frist.

That is Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who announced that a vote scheduled last Tuesday to repeal the estate tax, a move which would benefit the wealthiest one percent of Americans, would be postponed.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate also signaled that the planned cuts in social programs would be delayed to allow Congress to deal with the immediate aftermath of the hurricane.

"There is agreement that this natural disaster is critically important, and 100 percent of our energies need to be there," added Senator Frist.

But there may be another reason for the postponement besides responding to the hurricane.

At a time when the Bush administration is under fire for its slow response to helping the poorest victims of the hurricane, cuts to programs that help the poor could hurt Republicans politically.

Democrats have seized on the issue, and called on Republican leaders to abandon the spending cuts altogether. Senator Harry Reid is the top Democrat in the Senate.

"The poorest of the poor have been hit the hardest by Katrina. Shouldn't we consider not cutting Medicaid $10 billion? Because that is where the money goes, to the poorest of the poor. Cut student loans? Food stamps? These are cuts to the very programs that survivors of Katrina need," explained Senator Reid.

With the cost of the hurricane recovery and rebuilding estimated as high as $200 billion, many lawmakers are concerned about the impact that cost will have on the federal deficit, already ballooned by the high cost of the war in Iraq.

Some Democrats suggest President Bush should roll back some of the tax cuts put in place during his first term.

"The time has come to undo some of those tax breaks," said Congressman Barney Frank is a Democrat from Massachusetts.

Republican conservatives who champion tax relief are opposed to any talk of abandoning tax cuts and instead are vowing to press ahead with spending cuts to curb the federal deficit. Some have threatened to oppose additional requests for more aid to hurricane victims unless the Bush administration and Congress begin to find ways to offset spending.

Congress Thursday approved $51.8 billion in hurricane relief aid, bringing the total to $62 billion, the most money ever spent for a U.S. natural disaster.

The Bush administration has indicated it may ask for more money in the coming weeks as needs are better assessed.