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 » Rebuilding  |  Landmarks  | Storm & Flood  |  Special report

GOP leaders agree to joint Katrina hearings

Administration asks for $51.8 billion in Katrina aid

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A bipartisan joint congressional committee will review the response at all levels of government to Hurricane Katrina, the leaders of the House and Senate said Wednesday.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, said in a written statement the joint committee would report its findings to Congress no later than February 15 next year.

Critics argue the federal government took too long to mobilize aid, causing thousands of storm victims to languish for days without food, water and other necessities.

Frist told reporters during a brief appearance that the new committee will be composed of senior members of Congress, with Republicans in the majority.

A high-ranking House Democratic aide said lawmakers from his party had not been contacted yet.

It's uncertain when the joint hearings would begin, but GOP leaders have said repeatedly they don't want to pull officials out of the disaster area to testify.

The Bush administration on Wednesday asked Congress to approve a $51.8 billion emergency supplemental bill to pay for the recovery from Katrina -- with the White House budget chief saying "substantially more" money will likely be needed in the weeks and months ahead.

Congress already passed a $10.5 billion relief bill last week. (Full Story)

On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, sought to deflect criticism of the federal response before announcing that House hearings on the issue had been canceled -- and pressing for a joint review instead.

"The emergency response system was set up to work from the bottom up," DeLay said late Tuesday.

DeLay added that Alabama and Mississippi did a much better job of responding quickly than Louisiana. Alabama and Mississippi have Republican governors. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco is a Democrat.

Earlier Tuesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee had said it had begun an investigation into the government's response to the disaster.

Leaders vow bipartisan effort

After meeting with President Bush on Wednesday morning, Hastert said Congress' first priority would be on the disaster relief efforts.

"Number one, you have to clean up and neutralize the situation in New Orleans so that they can get in and do the work there. And of course also in Alabama and Mississippi," Hastert said.

"The second thing that we have to do is to make sure that this doesn't happen again. And we need to look into the investigation of exactly what happened, whose responsibility, so if we move forward, we don't have this problem again."

Also after meeting with Bush on Wednesday, Frist placed the blame for the slow response on all levels of government but warned against citing specific individuals.

Frist said, "Having been on the ground and seen the failures of the system's approach, the failure in appropriate planning -- yes, federal government; yes, state government; yes, local government -- but the call for people's heads early on almost, to me, misses the root cause of the problem."

Joining Hastert and Frist, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said Democrats would work closely with Congress' GOP leadership. Reid said the need for federal disaster aid could top $150 billion.

But Pelosi also called on the president to fire Michael Brown, director the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Brown and Department of Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff have come under intense criticism.

"I think we had a natural disaster, we all know that for sure. I think we had a second disaster in the manmade mistakes following Katrina," Pelosi said.

"I called upon the president to change the leadership of FEMA. If we're going to succeed at federal emergency management -- and I emphasize the word 'management' -- we have to have accountability and we have to have confidence. We don't have that at the head of FEMA."

Later Wednesday, Pelosi faulted Bush for appointing Brown to head FEMA in the first place. "He chose someone with absolutely no credentials," Pelosi said. She went on to say that the president was "oblivious" and "in denial" about the federal response to Katrina. (Watch Pelosi's comments -- 1:04)

In a response to Pelosi, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman faulted the Democratic leadership for using divisive language during a time of national crisis.

"While countless Americans are pulling together to lend a helping hand, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are pointing fingers in a shameless effort to tear us apart," Mehlman said in a written statement.

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, will hold a committee meeting Thursday morning to put together a bipartisan package of relief legislation. The two senators met with 30 relief organizations Monday, Kennedy spokeswoman Laura Capps said. Capps said the Senate leadership supported the Enzi-Kennedy committee.

Memo urges employees to 'convey positive image'

Chertoff, who is heading the federal response, argued for days after the disaster that no one foresaw such a combination of events to strike New Orleans, which flooded after levees broke in Katrina's wake. But lawmakers, scientists and journalists long had warned that if a major hurricane hit the city it would be a disaster.

In a memo dated August 29 -- the day Katrina struck the Gulf Coast -- Brown asked Chertoff for 1,000 Department of Homeland Security volunteers willing to deploy as soon as possible "for a two-week minimum field assignment" in hurricane-struck states.

The memo was obtained by the media Tuesday.

In it, Brown writes, "We anticipate needing at least 1,000 additional DHS employees within 48 hours and 2,000 within seven days."

According to FEMA spokeswoman Natalie Rule, the employees were needed to answer phones, do community relations and help set up field hospitals, what she called "nonemergency tasks." They are not first-responders, she said.

"We already had all of our first-responder teams pre-deployed -- 32 teams in all -- who went in and staged in and around the hurricane zone and were ready to go by Sunday. This is deployment that requires that the governor make a request to the federal government," Rule said.

In closing, Brown said, "Thank you for your consideration in helping us meet our responsibilities in this near catastrophic event."

Attached to the memo is a list of requirements for employees heading to the hurricane area, including personal supplies, contact points and physical requirements.

One part of the attachment advises employees to "convey a positive image of disaster operations to government officials, community organizations and the general public."

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