Democrats offer proposals to aid victims, press long-term issues

House Democrats yesterday unveiled an exhaustive wish list of steps the federal government could take to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina, calling for easier access to food stamps, quicker enrollment in Medicaid, greater availability of emergency housing, and federal assistance to school districts accepting students from displaced families, among many other measures to enhance services and eliminate red tape for survivors.

All of the proposed measures would come on top of the $10.5 billion that Congress appropriated last week for hurricane relief efforts, and many are things Democrats have championed previously.

The proposals come at a time when many state and local officials are blaming the Bush administration for being caught flat-footed when Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast last week. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) yesterday called for the president to fire Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

In the midst of the administration’s perceived failure of leadership, House Democrats are hoping the battery of proposals will distinguish their response to the disaster from that of Republicans.

“The people of the Gulf Coast region were struck by two disasters — first the hurricane, and then the failure of the federal government in their time of great need. This is not just a natural disaster; this is a failure of lack of preparedness,” Pelosi said yesterday at a press conference with senior Democrats.

Pelosi has already called for a “Select Hurricane Relief Task Force” to respond to the needs of victims while also examining why the initial relief operation failed.

Meanwhile, Democratic strategists began to explore how to exploit the slow government response and lack of preparedness for political gain, digging up several instances in recent years when the Republican-led Congress has cut funding for FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers and programs designed to shore up levees in Louisiana.

One such instance was in September 2003 when all but one Republican voted against a motion to boost FEMA funding by $1.1 billion. Then-Rep. Richard Burr (N.C.), whose district had been hit by Hurricane Isabel, was the sole Republican to back the measure.

Rep. James Moran (D-Va.) sponsored the motion shortly after Isabel came barreling up the East Coast.

“I just thought it was very irresponsible not to adequately fund [FEMA]. Had [FEMA] been adequately funded, we would have been better prepared,” Moran said yesterday.

He went on to criticize the government’s response to Katrina as “criminally inadequate.”
“People died through abandonment by a government that was responsible for these eventualities. If this was terrorism and white, middle-class people similarly affected, everyone else would be saying it was criminal abandonment. … I don’t think there’s any excuse.”

Democrats may also highlight a vote from May of this year in which Republicans opposed an amendment that would have increased funding for the Corps by $20 million. They are also likely to rehash budget cuts in levee and drainage projects and attempt to tie those funding shortfalls to increased needs in Iraq.

Although Democrats have called for the FEMA director’s head, they have sought to lay full blame squarely with President Bush.

“Instead of unconscionably blaming others, President Bush must take charge and take responsibility, and must get it right, and that is my concern and the message that I will bring to the president: ‘Mr. President, you should have taken charge and you should have taken responsibility,’” Pelosi said before heading to a meeting at the White House with Bush and congressional leaders.

Many Democrats are hoping to use Katrina to advance legislative measures aimed at providing government aid to low and middle-income individuals.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, said he hoped Republicans would take a second look at a provision that would use profits from government-sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to fund affordable housing.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), ranking member of House Education and Workforce Committee, said he had asked the panel’s chairman, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), to postpone a mark-up on provisions of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program that Democrats oppose.

Democrats also proposed expanding a disaster-related unemployment-insurance program, lifting late-payment penalties for student loans and providing exemptions from the recently passed bankruptcy bill, which requires bankruptcy filers to repay more of their debts.

Pelosi reopened a divisive issue in the Democratic caucus, the bankruptcy reform bill. Although she and other progressives had vehemently opposed the changes to bankruptcy law passed earlier this year, many centrists in the caucus backed the measure and urged the Republican leadership to bring it to a vote.

It was unclear whether reviving progressives’ opposition to the bankruptcy bill would annoy centrists. A call to House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), the No. 2 Democrat in the House and a strong proponent of the changes, was not immediately returned.