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Mississippi Republican seeks more storm relief

In a power play that could expose rifts inside the Republican Party and between the White House and Congress, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations panel wants to more than double President Bush’s request for hurricane relief.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In a power play that could expose rifts within the Republican Party and between the White House and Congress, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations panel is pushing to more than double President Bush’s latest request for hurricane relief.

Thad Cochran, a veteran Republican from hurricane-ravaged Mississippi, would add more than $18 billion to the $17 billion request submitted by Bush in October. Congress is likely to pass more hurricane relief before adjourning later this month.

Cochran’s plan would add $11.5 billion to Bush’s $1.5 billion request for Community Development Block Grants to help Katrina, chiefly to help homeowners without flood insurance rebuild or repair their homes. Many homes outside areas traditionally vulnerable to floods — and therefore not insured against Katrina’s massive flood surge — were destroyed.

“This would be money for homes that were not in the flood plain but that had flood damage or were destroyed,” said Cochran spokeswoman Jenny Manley. “About 30,000 homes (in Mississippi) are eligible.”

Cochran would also provide about $4 billion for agriculture disasters across the country, a move that could build political support for the entire relief package. He would also double, to $1 billion, grants for social services such as child care. His proposal is still in draft form.

Solid GOP challenge expected
Whatever Katrina relief is finally agreed to is likely to be added to the must-pass defense budget currently in House-Senate negotiations.

But the plan is likely to encounter stiff resistance from House GOP leaders and conservatives worried that hurricane-related spending is padding the deficit. They are likely to seek to hew more closely to Bush’s request to use $17 billion already approved for hurricane relief for new purposes, such as rebuilding highways, levees and federal facilities damaged by the storms.

The White House isn’t commenting on Cochran’s plan, saying that the pending request is sufficient for now and that a more comprehensive plan will be submitted next year.

“We urge Congress to act on this latest request as quickly as possible to help further the recovery effort,” said Scott Milburn, spokesman for the White House budget office. “The latest request is the right approach for this stage of the recovery, but a request for additional funds is expected after the turn of the year.”

Gulf state lawmakers, however, are unhappy with the pace of the recovery effort and are worried that some of the momentum felt in the immediate aftermath of the storms has faded.

Lott criticizes recovery effort
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., issued a statement Friday criticizing the recovery effort and asking Bush to redouble the flood relief effort.

“We’ve dusted ourselves off and are working to restore our infrastructure and residential and business tax base,” Lott said. “We need your leadership to ensure that the federal government fulfills its commitment to help Mississippians get back on their feet.”

In September, Congress passed two bills providing $62 billion in emergency monies for hurricane relief, mostly to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That money has been used for near-term recovery efforts such as clearing debris, providing temporary housing and direct aid to individuals.

As it turns out, the White House overestimated the pace of spending. About $37 billion in uncommitted funds remain in FEMA coffers.

White House requests
The major items in the pending White House request include:

  • $6.6 billion for the Pentagon to repair military facilities such as the Keesler air base and the Naval Air Station in New Orleans, repair Navy ships and to pay the costs of military deployments to the region.
  • $2.2 billion to the Housing and Urban Development Department to restore housing units for low-income Gulf Coast residents, provide rental assistance and give poor families ownership of rehabilitated federal housing stock.
  • $2.4 billion for transportation-related needs such as repairing highways and airport control towers.
  • $1.6 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers to repair levees, flood control and navigation projects.
  • $1.4 billion to replace the VA medical centers in New Orleans and Biloxi, to replace medication, supplies and equipment for the hospitals and their clinics and to repair damaged national cemeteries.

Separately, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., has requested another $1.1 billion in additional spending for border security, mostly to upgrade Customs and Border Protection air fleet.