President Bush has pledged a blank check for Katrina reconstruction: “It’s going to cost whatever it costs.”

That’s a worthy sentiment, but, sympathy for the battered Gulf Coast aside, somebody has to be asking the hard question: How are we going to pay for all of this?

The estimates are that Hurricane Katrina-related rebuilding will cost $150 billion to $200 billion. That’s on top of the unbudgeted costs of the Iraq war, now closing in on $200 billion itself.

And it is not as if this government has cash to spare. President Bush and the Republican Congress have presided over record increases in federal spending _ the most expensive education, farm and highway bills and Great Society expansion ever _with the result that each year has seen a record federal deficit, $412 billion last year.

The Heritage Foundation estimates that we could have an $873 billion deficit within 10 years _ and these are the president’s friends doing the calculating.

The answer is that Katrina should be paid for by some combination of the following: trimming or postponing the president’s upper-income tax cuts; postponing the prescription-drug benefit; scaling back on the pork in the just-passed $286 billion highway bill; requiring new spending programs and tax cuts to be offset elsewhere in the budget; and paying rigorous attention to existing federal spending.

The problem with giving the president and Congress a blank check is that they’ll try to cash it.

Bush has already ruled out messing with his tax cuts, and Congress has shown little enthusiasm for the other measures. This is when Congress’ Republican leadership should step up and take the necessary measures to fund Katrina-related reconstruction _ and install auditors to make sure the money is properly spent _ without trashing the rest of the federal budget.

Otherwise, the answer to how we pay for Katrina is the same as it has been for four, now going on five, years when it comes to finding money for other purposes: We’ll borrow it.

Thus, the No Child Left Behind Act assumes new importance. We can’t leave any children behind because we’ll need them to pay the bills we’re running up.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)