Now the Investigations Come Ashore

President Bush and congressional leaders on Tuesday pledged separate investigations into the much-criticized shortcomings of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

As Congress returned from a five-week summer recess to face a far different agenda than when it left, one estimate of the government’s share of relief and recovery topped $150 billion.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said senators would to meet privately Wednesday with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security, and that she hoped to begin public hearings into the disaster response next week.

“Government at all levels failed,” she told reporters.

The president, addressing reporters after a meeting with his Cabinet, suggested his investigation would have less of a critical tone or a sense of urgency.

“I’m going to find out over time what went right and what went wrong,” he said.

Bush and administration officials maintained that now is not an appropriate time to point fingers because rescue efforts are still under way.

“The time for bickering and blame-gaming is later,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “The time for helping people in the region is now.”

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who had a home that was destroyed by the hurricane, said he had urged Collins, “Please don’t have a hearing tying up the people that are making decisions, trying to fix blame.”

Even so, there seemed to be a consensus from the White House and Capitol Hill that the lag time in getting food, water and rescuers to thousands of victims in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast may have exposed a broad vulnerability for major U.S. cities should any terrorist groups consider a repeat of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“We still live in an unsettled world,” Bush said. “We want to make sure that we can respond properly if there’s a WMD weapons of mass destruction) attack or another major storm.”

Said Collins: “How is it possible that, almost four years to the day after the attacks on our country, with billions of dollars spent to improve our preparedness, that a major area of our nation was so ill-prepared to respond to a catastrophe? Is the federal government organized in the most effective manner to deliver emergency services in response to catastrophes such as Katrina or terrorist attacks?”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., set aside this week’s previously scheduled legislative agenda to consider hurricane-related matters, including legislation responding to judicial emergencies in affected states.

House leaders also said they expected votes on more hurricane relief legislation by the end of this week. Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., called for cooperation between partisan leaders, between the House and the Senate, and between chairmen of committees with overlapping duties, “so that as we start to solve these problems of how people get their welfare checks, how people get their unemployment checks, how we get kids back in school _ those things _ that we can work that out in an expedited manner.”

Bush, still reeling from criticism of his administration’s handling of the hurricane aftermath, called congressional leaders to the White House on Tuesday for a meeting, their first since the hurricane.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he left that meeting expecting the White House to seek another $40 billion or $50 billion within the next day or so. But after talking with other officials, Reid said he expected the federal commitment to exceed $150 billion _ more than several other hurricanes combined. So far, Congress has approved $10.5 billion in emergency relief.

Also Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers ramped up their criticism of the administration’s response. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told Bush he should fire FEMA director Michael Brown. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., announced legislation to create an independent commission, such as the one established after 9/11, to investigate the government’s response to the hurricane.

Lawmakers also are beginning to debate whether putting FEMA under the Department of Homeland Security was a good idea, or whether it should be restored as its own Cabinet-level agency.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat on the Senate’s homeland security panel, said Congress should look critically at its own actions, including its failure to fund levee projects over the years.

“We can’t be defensive about anything,” Lieberman said.

Before the hurricane, Congress had a wide array of issues on its plate: Making permanent the repeal of the estate tax. Creating an asbestos relief fund, to compensate those with disease related to the building material, while shielding manufacturers from personal injury lawsuits. Debating whether fetuses feel pain. Tackling illegal immigration concerns while working with businesses to create some form of guest-worker program. Some even thought the president’s troubled plan to divert some Social Security funds into private investment accounts could still be viable.

Now, much of that agenda may be pushed back until next year or indefinitely, as managing, and paying for, one of the biggest disasters in the nation’s history takes center stage.

That includes pork-barrel spending not directly tied to natural disaster preparedness or relief.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma issued a joint statement Tuesday urging member of Congress to, “at least temporarily, deny themselves a few of the comforts of political office and refrain from directing tax dollars to special projects in their states that might help their political campaigns but not necessarily the country as a whole. In the past year Congress has found a way to fund thousands of projects of questionable merit. Perhaps a few of those dollars could have been better spent on activities that might have limited the impact of this tragedy.”

One of the few pre-existing measures that could take on more urgency because of Katrina is a controversial provision in the budget bill that would allow for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The hurricane has hindered Gulf Coast refineries, and speculation about reduced gasoline production has led to price spikes.