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Bush signs $10.5 billion disaster aid bill

Democratic leader says government lacked leadership, urgency




New Orleans (Louisiana)
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Dennis Hastert

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After touring Gulf Coast states affected by Hurricane Katrina, President Bush on Friday night signed a $10.5 billion relief package passed by Congress to help victims of the massive storm.

The amount includes $10 billion in supplemental funds for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $500 million for the Pentagon for its hurricane relief work.

Some members of Congress returned early from their five-week recess to vote on the bill. The House passed the bill Friday after the Senate approved it Thursday night.

Also Friday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, asked the Senate government affairs committee to review the federal response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, on Friday criticized the Republican congressional leadership for not acting sooner.

"I think what has been lacking this week is the sense of urgency, the judgment and the action needed to save lives and to remove uncertainty from the lives of people," Pelosi said.

"Whatever the judgment is about the leadership that has happened right now, if we think that this was a good example of leadership, we have, indeed, lowered our standards as a nation," Pelosi said.

"This is not a satisfactory response. Let's not call it that," Pelosi continued. "It's an insult to the people who are in hospitals. Doctors and health professionals, nurses and the rest who are making enormous sacrifices need it to be much more done sooner."

Pelosi asked House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, to create a bi-partisan House task force to address issues related to the recovery efforts.

Thursday, Hastert was criticized by local officials after raising questions in a newspaper interview about whether flood-stricken New Orleans should be rebuilt in its existing form.

Hastert's office later issued a statement insisting he was not calling for the city to be abandoned or relocated. But Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco made it clear she wanted more than just a clarification from the speaker.

"To destroy hope when hope is all we have left -- I demand an immediate apology," she said.

The disaster relief bill was "hot-lined" in the Senate. All members were contacted to ask if they had any objections to the measure. When no lawmakers objected, the bill was brought up and passed by leaders with only a few senators present.

"We're working very aggressively to reverse this natural disaster, which is one of the worst that we've seen in the last hundred years," Frist said as he arrived at the Senate building.

FEMA has been spending $500 million a day on disaster relief and had about $2.5 billion remaining in its disaster relief fund for the remainder of the fiscal year, Bolten said.

"We, therefore, felt it was prudent not to wait until next week, when the Congress returns, to make this request but to ensure that there would be no disruption and no uncertainty about funding," he said.

Katrina is thought to have killed more than 180 people on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi, while thousands are feared dead in New Orleans and its surrounding parishes. Most of New Orleans was flooded when two of the levees that keep water out of the city, which is largely below sea level, failed in the wake of the storm.

In an interview with the Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago newspaper, Hastert questioned whether it made sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city "that's seven feet under water."

"Your heart goes out to the people," Hastert was quoted as saying. "But there are some real tough questions to ask. How do you go about rebuilding this city? What precautions do you take? When the electricity goes out and everything else goes out -- you don't have the pumps to pump it out either. Because it doesn't work either."

He added, "We build Los Angeles and San Francisco on top of earthquake fissures, and they rebuild too. Stubbornness."

Reacting to Hastert's remarks, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana, said the city and its surrounding parishes are not only "worth saving, but they are worth every penny of a complete rebuilding effort."

She said Hastert "raises a debate that we can address at some time in the future. Right now, however, we have important work to do."

Amid the reaction of Louisiana leaders, Hastert's office later issued what his aides called a clarification of his remarks.

"I am not advocating that the city be abandoned or relocated," he said. "My comments about rebuilding the city were intended to reflect my sincere concern with how the city is rebuilt to ensure the future protection of its citizens and not to suggest that this great and historic city should not be rebuilt."

Bolten said Hastert's comments did not come up when Bush spoke to congressional leaders about the disaster aid bill. He also said the $10.5 billion was a "rough calculation" of what was needed for the first phase of relief efforts.

"Something that our folks on the ground have told us is that it's almost impossible to gauge what will be necessary to achieve recovery in New Orleans until it's basically drained out," he said.

CNN Correspondent Deborah Feyerick and Producer Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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