Parties remain deadlocked on Katrina investigation

Republicans and Democrats remained in a partisan deadlock yesterday as they prepared for a floor vote to determine how to investigate the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.

Republican leaders have pressed for a GOP-controlled bicameral committee to review the government’s handling of the disaster, while Democrats favor an independent panel similar to the Sept. 11 commission.

Republican House leaders plan to bring their proposal to the floor today, despite Democratic opposition, and pass it in a largely party-line vote.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is confident that his Republican colleagues will back the measure.

“I think we’re fine,” Blunt said yesterday in response to a question about whether his office would whip the bill. “We’ve talked to our members. Our members are fine.”

The proposal would set up a 20-member committee consisting of 11 Republicans and nine Democrats on the House side, according to a draft of the resolution. The minority will be extended the ability to call for extra witnesses at hearings. A budget of $500,000 will be provided through the House Administration Committee.

Democrats plan to offer a motion to recommit, a common parliamentary maneuver that would come up shortly before the vote on the Republicans’ joint committee and would attempt to create an independent commission. That motion is expected to fail along party lines.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he anticipated that the “overwhelming majority” of Democrats would back an independent commission, which will be called for in the motion to recommit.

He hinted that some Democrats may also vote for the Republicans’ joint committee.

“That’s not a partisan issue. That’s a judgment issue,” he said.

In the upper chamber, Republicans defeated by a vote of 44-54 an amendment offered by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) that would have created a 10-member independent commission evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. No Senate Republicans voted for the amendment. And Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rejected an offer from Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to create a joint committee because the proposal did not provide equal representation and subpoena power for Democrats.

Frist has already named Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, to lead the Senate investigation. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is not expected to name a chairman or members of the investigative committee until the House has passed the bill.

He told reporters yesterday that he wanted to get members on the ground in the hurricane-ravaged states as soon as possible to start the congressional investigation.

Both parties face potential political fallout from the bitter standoff. Democrats could face charges of partisanship for failing to go along with the Republicans’ joint panel, a type of committee that has been used dozens of times in recent decades to investigate different administrations, including the Iran-Contra scandal, Republicans argue.

Democrats counter that the circumstances were different during the 1980s because Democrats controlled Congress and were investigating a Republican administration. They also charge that congressional Republicans have shown little enthusiasm for any kind of oversight of the Bush administration and that any investigation controlled by Republicans would amount to a whitewash.

As Republicans go forward with plans for a joint committee, Democrats could be faced with an awkward decision to drop their protest and participate in the committee or remain on the sidelines.

Hoyer noted that Democrats had not yet decided whether they would boycott the committee further down the road.

Dropping the protest at some point remained a possibility, said one Democratic strategist.

“You can fight something and then go grudgingly along. That is an option in order to have some voice in the process,” the strategist said. Still, Democrats held the high ground in calling for an independent commission rather than a committee controlled by a party sympathetic to the administration, the strategist added.

Asked if Democrats could be persuaded to support the Republicans’ plan if given some concessions, Hoyer said he felt there could be some “wiggle room” but “we want to ensure that there is at least one independent commission with subpoena power.”

Some Democratic aides drew parallels between the current standoff over Katrina and an earlier impasse over the structure of the House ethics committee, noting that Democrats had boycotted that committee, forcing Republicans to reverse certain rule changes.

Aside from the current dustup over the botched response to Katrina, the political fallout from the storm is beginning to emerge across the country.

The National Republican Congressional Committee put out a press release late last week criticizing Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson (Utah) for voting against the emergency spending bill to fund the Katrina cleanup, only to have The Salt Lake Tribune publish a long article about how the allegations were untrue. Matheson voted against one of the rules leading up to the spending bill.

In fact, the only members to vote against the first emergency spending bill were Republicans. Eleven House conservatives voted against the bill for various reasons, but primarily in protest of a lack of oversight for the funds.

In addition, President Bush has suffered career-low approval ratings in the wake of a slow federal response to the disaster. Michael Brown, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, resigned earlier this week.

A large majority of Americans favor an independent oversight committee in the mold of the Sept. 11 commission, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll from over the weekend.