The United States may eventually spend billions of dollars to help Asia recover from last week’s devastating tsunami, a leading Republican U.S. senator said on Sunday as the Bush administration battled criticism it had been slow to respond.

The $350 million in aid pledged so far by President Bush represents the entire U.S. foreign disaster assistance budget, and Congress will work to pass emergency legislation to go “well beyond” that figure, said Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican and head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Lugar, asked on “Fox News Sunday” whether U.S. aid could reach billions of dollars, said “ultimately there could be, given all that is occurring in Indonesia.”

An earthquake and subsequent tsunami last Sunday devastated coastal areas in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India and as far away as East Africa. The death toll will probably exceed 150,000, and recovery could take five to 10 years and cost billions of dollars, U.N. officials said.

Secretary of State Colin Powell set off on a visit to the region and will participate in an aid-donors’ conference in Jakarta on Thursday. He defended the Bush administration against complaints it took too long to comprehend the scale of the crisis or respond with money.

“We have nothing to be embarrassed about. Our response scaled up as the scope of the disaster scaled up,” Powell said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Bush, who returned to Washington on Sunday from a Christmas break at his Texas ranch, had been following the disaster “very closely from the beginning,” Powell told CNN’s “Late Edition.” As of Sunday, the U.S. military had delivered 430,000 pounds (195,000 kg) of food, supplies and equipment for immediate relief in the tsunami-stricken region, spokesmen for the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii said at a briefing.

Some 12,000 U.S. military personnel had been deployed to aid the tsunami relief effort, most of them aboard Navy ships and U.S. ships and aircraft also were ferrying aid from other donors, the spokesmen said.

The Asian disaster caused tens of billions of dollars of damage, and as many as 5 million people may need assistance, U.N. emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland told Fox. He told a news conference 1.8 million people now needed food aid.


The recovery could take five to 10 years, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said. “The devastation is enormous. It will require billions of dollars. Of course, the governments themselves will have to do what they can. But they need international support to be able to do it,” Annan said on ABC’s “This Week.”

So far, countries have pledged $2 billion in assistance, led by Japan’s contribution of $500 million. The World Bank’s contribution could rise by two to three times the $250 million already offered, bank President James Wolfensohn told ABC.

The U.S. Congress passed $13.6 billion in domestic disaster aid last October, mostly for Florida, a state which was vital to Bush’s campaign for reelection and which was struck by four hurricanes. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the U.S. president’s brother and a possible candidate to succeed him in 2008, accompanied Powell on the Asia trip.

A possible source of additional U.S. assistance for Asia could be money earmarked for reconstruction in Iraq, lawmakers said. That money has remained unspent due to a violent insurgency.

Powell disputed accusations that the United States had failed to deliver on past aid pledges. “When we pledge an amount, we plan to deliver that amount,” he said.

Egeland, who drew a sharp rebuke from Bush last week after he said rich countries had been relatively stingy with foreign aid in the past, said the United States and other countries had been generous in their response to the tsunami.

But he defended his assertion that wealthy countries could do more to help poor ones. “I will always be of the view that as the rich world is getting richer — Europe, North America, Japan, Asia, the Gulf countries — it should be possible to feed all the world’s children, and we are not at the moment,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Tom Ferraro and Charles Abbott)

© Reuters 2005. All Rights Reserved.