GOP Senators Call for Gulf Coast ‘Marshall Plan’

Senate Republican leaders on Wednesday urged President George W. Bush to establish a “Marshall Plan” for the recovery after Hurricane Katrina, similar to the massive post-World War II effort to rebuild western Europe.

In a letter to Bush, Majority Leader Bill Frist and the rest of the Senate Republican leadership called for a “Marshall Plan” to establish a “coordinated and comprehensive plan to help the Gulf Coast region.”

They did not spell out precisely what such a plan would entail, but lawmakers are beginning to consider ways of assembling a public-private partnership to redevelop the shattered region in the coming years.

Senators from both parties will visit the Gulf Coast on Friday for a first-hand inspection of the devastation.

The Republican-controlled Senate also rejected a proposal by Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and other Democrats to set up an independent panel modeled on the 9/11 Commission to investigate the bungled evacuation and emergency response to Katrina.

Separately, bipartisan group of senators proposed an emergency package of health care benefits for storm victims. The bill would ease eligibility requirements for the Medicaid health care program for the poor and help those with private insurance maintain their coverage.

The Senate may take up the bill, which also provides an additional 13 weeks of unemployment benefits for storm victims, on Thursday.

Republicans have proposed a joint House-Senate special panel but Democrats are demanding an independent investigation.

Despite the bickering over how to investigate the disaster, Frist and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada announced they would lead a 14-member delegation to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama on Friday. Both Louisiana’s senators, one Democrat and one Republican, would take part.

In addition to the “Marshall plan” letter, lawmakers from both parties have put forth various proposals for oversight of the tens of billions of dollars of federal funds pouring into the emergency efforts.

Senate Democrats have proposed creation of a redevelopment agency modeled on the Tennessee Valley Authority, an independent government corporation created during the 1930s to manage a huge flood control and electrical generation program.

Republican Sens. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Jeff Sessions of Alabama urged Bush to name a central coordinator to oversee storm recovery by federal agencies, an effort that they said would take years and cost huge amounts of money.

“My concern is that without a primary coordinator, we face the likely prospect of dozens of well-meaning federal agencies chaotically tripping over each other as the recovery process moves forward,” Domenici said.

Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn — representing opposite ends of the political spectrum — called on Congress to establish a “chief financial officer” to oversee the $62 billion in relief funds the Federal Emergency Management Agency is doling out.

“This is to assure the American people that there’s not going to be any shenanigans,” Coburn said.

Meanwhile, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held its first open hearing on the government’s response to the devastating storm with testimony from former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial, who now heads the National Urban League.

Morial suggested the government set up a compensation fund for Katrina victims, similar to the one established after the September 11, 2001 attacks. He also said Gulf coast residents must have a role in all aspects of rebuilding.

The House of Representatives Government Reform Committee plans to hold its first hearing into the Katrina response on Thursday, and the full House hopes to pass a bill giving short-term tax breaks to storm victims and help the recovery effort.