updated 9/15/2005 10:08:37 AM ET 2005-09-15T14:08:37

Post-9/11 reforms to respond to catastrophic disasters failed their first major test in Hurricane Katrina’s wake, the Republican chairwoman of a Senate committee said Wednesday as the panel opened its inquiry of the government’s response to the storm.

Despite billions of dollars to boost disaster preparedness at all levels of government, the response to Katrina was plagued by confusion, communication failures and widespread lack of coordination, said Senate Homeland Security Committee chair Susan Collins, R-Maine.

“At this point, we would have expected a sharp, crisp response to this terrible tragedy,” Collins said. “Instead, we witnessed what appeared to be a sluggish initial response.”

The hearing marked Congress’ first step in investigating major gaps in the country’s readiness and response systems that Katrina exposed. It comes as Republican and Democrats continue debate over whether to appoint an unusual House-Senate panel to investigate the matter, or to create an independent commission much like the one that examined government missteps that led to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the committee, said the response to Katrina “has shaken the public’s confidence in the ability of government at all levels to protect them in a crisis.”

Lawmakers said they did not ask officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Homeland Security Department to appear at the hearing out of fear that would disrupt the ongoing recovery process in the battered Gulf Coast. Instead, a slew of former city and state officials testified about their experiences in facing faced major disasters in their communities.

Calling Katrina a “national tragedy,” former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial put the primary responsibility for disaster response squarely on the federal government’s shoulders. Morial, president of the National Urban League, was New Orleans’ mayor from 1994 to 2004.

“This tragedy requires a concerted, dedicated and wholehearted response from our federal government,” Morial said in prepared testimony.

“In responding to this crisis, our government’s number one priority must be to help protect and restore the lives of the hundreds of thousands of citizens whose worlds have been disrupted and destroyed,” he said. “We must every day and in every way put the people first.”

Congressional response slows
Meanwhile, a spate of bills to cut federal red tape and otherwise make it easier to get aid to Katrina victims has hit a slow patch as lawmakers wrestle over how to shape their response.

Congress zipped through bills providing $62 billion in emergency aid to hurricane victims but the broader legislative response is a work in progress.

Included in this second phase are proposals to provide Medicaid health benefits to those made homeless by Katrina, lift work rules for welfare recipients, and implement tax changes to help hurricane victims and charitable donors. More comprehensive bills are to follow.

Republicans are starting to voice complaints that Democrats are seeking to seize upon the tragedy to pass more ambitious legislation than they otherwise could expect to achieve in the GOP-dominated Congress.

“In some instances, (Democrats are) trying to up the ante and use this crisis to accomplish goals that maybe they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to accomplish without a natural disaster,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said. Grassley is at the center of the storm as he negotiates over taxes, welfare and Medicaid.

For example, a House-passed bill to temporarily ease rules requiring that welfare recipients work 30 hours a week for their benefits and extend the welfare program is still pending before the Senate, despite a big push by Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to clear it for President Bush’s signature. Democrats are pressing for a more generous approach.

For their part, outgunned House Democrats have settled on a far-reaching Katrina response plan, including housing vouchers, increases in unemployment insurance payments and full Medicaid coverage for hurricane victims.

Grassley has formally introduced a bipartisan tax break plan costing up to $7 billion that would let hurricane victims tap their retirement accounts, assist businesses and encourage charitable donations. A House plan is still taking shape.

Moving any bill quickly through the notoriously balky Senate requires bipartisan negotiations among a host of political players, so it’s not unusual to hit snags.

Presidential strategy
Bush, meanwhile, facing sharp criticism and the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, scheduled a speech to the nation from Louisiana for Thursday evening. It will be his fourth trip to the devastated Gulf Coast since the storm struck two weeks ago.

The president on Tuesday acknowledged again the inadequacy of the federal response and for the first time assumed personal responsibility for its failings.

“And to the extent that the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility,” he said. “I want to know what went right and what went wrong.”

Democrats continue to press for an independent, bipartisan panel modeled after the Sept. 11 Commission and they say congressional inquiries should not be controlled by Republicans.

Senate Republicans killed the first of several attempts by Democrats to seize on Katrina to add disaster-related funds to a pending spending bill, a $48.9 billion measure funding the budgets of the departments of Commerce and Justice.

By a 56-41 vote, Republicans defeated a bid by Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., to add $700 million to the spending bill for grants to local governments to hire police officers and another $300 million for better communications equipment for local first responders.

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