WASHINGTON — A triumvirate of Republican power brokers may give Mississippi first dibs in the post-Hurricane Katrina grab for federal disaster funds even though the federal government focused its initial response to the storm on New Orleans.
The state’s senior senator, Thad Cochran, is the new chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the panel charged with determining how much and where the recovery money will be spent.
Its junior senator’s home — a place where GOP leaders from across the county once bantered about politics from rocking chairs on a porch overlooking the Gulf of Mexico — was flattened by Katrina.
“There’s nothing there now,” Sen. Trent Lott said of his historic Pascagoula house, which had been 12 feet above sea level. “I found my refrigerator, from my kitchen. It went down the street two blocks, turned left and went into a neighbor’s yard.”
Add Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman, and Mississippi packs more political muscle than the other storm-ravaged states of Louisiana and Alabama.
Television and the Internet have introduced the men to the world in intensely emotional terms.
Before the cameras, Barbour wept, bereft of words, as he tried to describe the scene in the first hours after the storm.
On the Senate floor, the genteel Cochran spoke softly about the storm.
“I don’t know of anything that has depressed me more than seeing what I saw yesterday in my state,” Cochran said late last week when he presided over an emergency session to send $10.5 billion to the region.
Over the telephone, Lott spoke of the storm as a “great equalizer.”
“My problems are not nearly as bad as others’,” he said Friday. “My heart was just breaking yesterday and the day before and today.”
Mississippi has president's ear
After touring the flattened Gulf Coast with lawmakers from the region, President Bush made it clear that Mississippi’s senior pols have his ear.
“Trent was telling me that we’ve got to get that port of Pascagoula open so we can get ships of foreign crude oil to the refinery,” Bush told reporters.
That could take weeks or months, but Mississippi made other progress toward recovery this week. For example, the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort will dock at Pascagoula within days to offer its medical supplies, trauma room and as many as 1,000 beds, Lott said.
Mississippi’s political muscle follows decades of being in the shadow of Louisiana, clout-wise, on Capitol Hill. But in the wake of departures by such heavyweights as former House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, Senate Energy Committee Chairman Bennett Johnson and centrist Democratic Sen. John Breaux, Louisiana now has a relatively junior delegation in Congress.
Cochran and Lott are veterans of both politics and hurricanes. Alumni of the University of Mississippi and lawyers, the sometime rivals have held the most powerful seats in Congress. Helping their state and the region recover from Katrina’s wrath is a defining moment in both of their careers.
Political rehabilitation in sight
For Lott, the task is an opportunity to complete his own political recovery.
He was Republican leader until 2002, when he made a remark that seemed to praise the late Sen. Strom Thurmond’s segregationist past and was forced to step down from the leadership post.
He has rebounded in part by chairing the Senate Rules Committee, being loyal to the party line and building support at home by winning millions of dollars for Mississippi’s shipbuilding industry.
A survivor himself, Lott has a new book coming out and harbors ambitions to regain his old post when Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., retires from the Senate next year.
Cochran’s clout comes with the most powerful chairmanship in the Senate, the pinnacle of his 26-year Senate career. His inclination for pragmatism over ideology was evident during the 29-minute Senate session last week.
'A horrible sight'
Gaveling open the emergency session as one of the three senators required for such proceedings, he gazed down from the dais as Frist and Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada delivered their statements from behind their desks.
Then Frist switched places with Cochran. From behind the majority leader’s desk, Cochran read from the bill and letters from the administration which would make release of the federal funds legal.
He paused only briefly to recount his experience touring Mississippi the day before.
“It was quiet. It was eerie. It was a horrible sight to behold,” Cochran said.
Then he launched into a description of the bureaucratic route the money would take to those who need it.
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