Congress taking a backseat to White House on Haiti aid

As international aid poured into Haiti and residents fled a devastated Port-au-Prince, congressional aides said Congress has no immediate plans to take up Haiti relief.

House and Senate aides said congressional Democrats continued to consult with the administration on how to help the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, which is reeling from an earthquake that killed as many as 100,000 people.

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A House leadership aide said the administration, which has pledged $100 million in U.S. aid to the relief effort, has indicated it has everything it needs for now.

“We’ve asked the administration if they need any funding or authority and they say they have everything they need for now,” the aide said in an e-mail.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office was noncommittal Monday about a quick Senate vote on relief funds for Haiti. “We will consult with the White House and the House leadership on how to proceed,” a spokesman for Reid (D-Nev.) said.

Spokesmen for the Senate Appropriations and Foreign Relations committees said they were unaware of any specific funding requests generated from their committees.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Fourteen senators last week asked Reid to make relief for Haiti the first order of business upon the Senate’s return on Wednesday.

In a letter to Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sent one day after the earthquake, the senators requested “robust emergency funds to assist Haiti in the next legislative vehicle before the Senate.”

Those signing the letter included Florida Sens. Bill Nelson (D) and George LeMieux (R), who represent one of the largest Haitian immigrant populations in the country.

House aides last week said members were looking at the possibility of adding additional relief funds for Haiti to a $33 billion war supplemental package.

The House has also moved on a bill that would allow taxpayers to write off donations to relief efforts in Haiti on their 2009 taxes. Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said he plans to file legislation allowing write-offs for monetary donations to Haiti.

U.S. officials worried Monday about a mass exodus of people fleeing Haiti for the U.S. Over the weekend, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano pleaded for Haitians not to take to the sea because it would force the U.S. to divert resources.

Separately, the Department of Homeland Security on Sunday granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Haitians, something a number of lawmakers had requested.

TPS status allows Haitians to remain in the U.S. up to 18 months past the expiration date on their visas. Only Haitians who were in the U.S. as of Jan. 12 will be granted the status. The policy can be controversial with groups opposed to increased immigration.

Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), one of the lawmakers who had requested the status for Haitians, applauded the move.

“A great nation extends the hand of friendship to its neighbors during times of challenge and crisis,” said Green, who predicted the status could allow thousands of Haitian immigrants to work legally.

Aid workers in Haiti continued to try to deliver food, water and shelter to the thousands left homeless by the earthquake. Many Haitians were busy Monday loading onto buses to try to escape the capital city of Port-au-Prince. The U.S. military is helping to provide security in Haiti, where fears of widespread violence are said to be growing, according to media reports.

Private aid continued to flood into Haiti through charitable donations, many of which came through new technologies such as texting and Twitter.

President Barack Obama visited the American Red Cross headquarters with first lady Michelle Obama on Tuesday to highlight the need for more relief.

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He sent his first “tweet” on Twitter to highlight the visit and the $21 million he said had been sent to Haitian relief efforts via Twitter alone.
“Keep it up; you make us proud,” Obama tweeted to Red Cross workers.

It is unclear how much aid will be necessary to assist those left homeless by the earthquake and to rebuild the devastated country. Former President Bill Clinton has noted that $1 billion in aid was donated by Americans to victims of the Asian tsunami in 2004.

Clinton and former President George W. Bush are working together to raise money for Haiti.

This story was updated at 2:28 p.m. on Tuesday.