Ball now in La. court, Bush says
State needs a plan for recovery, he says
Friday, January 27, 2006
By Bill Walsh
WASHINGTON -- Responding to complaints that his administration is
short-changing Louisiana's hurricane recovery, President Bush on
Thursday said the federal government has already made a "significant
commitment" and suggested that more money is unlikely until the state
produces a detailed recovery plan.
At other points during a White
House news conference, Bush sounded more accommodating, calling the
passage of three hurricane-related spending bills and two tax-relief
packages since September "a good start, a strong start" and indicating
he would address the increasingly controversial pace of Gulf Coast
recovery in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night.
Bush's comments come two days after his administration announced its
opposition to a popular local proposal to bail out the owners of an
estimated 217,000 houses in Louisiana destroyed in hurricane-related
flooding last year. The White House said Louisiana instead should use
already appropriated money to focus on the needs of 20,000 uninsured
homeowners outside the flood plain, a number that prompted shrieks of
protest from state and local officials who say it grossly underestimates
the scale of the damage and would retard the state's recovery.
"I want to remind people in that part of the world, $85 billion is a
lot," Bush said, referring to money already appropriated by Congress for
wide-ranging recovery efforts all along the Gulf Coast. "It's important
for New Orleans and the state of Louisiana to work together to develop a
state recovery plan. Folks in Congress will want to spend money based
upon a specific strategy. We've got to get comfortable with how to
proceed. The plan for Louisiana hasn't come forward yet."
Blanco begs to differ
In Baton Rouge, however, Gov. Kathleen Blanco sharply took issue with
Bush's claim that Louisiana has no recovery plan. She said the White
House proposal to tap $6.2 billion in Community Development Block Grant
money would help only one in 10 flood-damaged homeowners and leave other
priorities, such as economic development and infrastructure repair,
Blanco said the linchpin in Louisiana's recovery plan was legislation by
Rep. Richard Baker, R-Baton Rouge, which enjoys support from a broad
coalition of Louisiana officials in both parties. Baker's bill would
create the Louisiana Recovery Corporation and use federal bond revenue
to buy flood-damaged homes and pay off mortgages. It passed a House
committee last year, 50-9, but stalled in the final days of the 2005
Bush's hurricane recovery chief in Louisiana, Donald Powell, came out
against the bill Tuesday, saying it would create a needless layer of
bureaucracy. Powell urged the state instead to tap the federal grant
money for housing and return with specific requests for financing for
Louisiana officials said they had developed a plan for $350 million in
federal grant financing to help local governments, rebuild state
facilities such as hospitals and extend loans to businesses. They said
they are waiting on the outcome of the Baker bill before committing the
rest of the money.
"Louisiana has a well-designed bipartisan plan for reconstruction that
the White House doesn't want to accept and very publicly rejected just
Tuesday," Blanco said in a statement. "It would enable Louisiana
homeowners to avoid foreclosure and will prevent widespread suffering
and financial ruin by Louisiana homeowners who simply put their faith in
the integrity of levees built by the U.S. government.
"Administration officials do not understand the suffering of the people
of Louisiana," Blanco said.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who is pushing the Baker bill in the Senate,
added: "The people of Louisiana have a plan. What we need is a willing,
creative and enthusiastic partner in the federal government. What we
need is for the president to be our No. 1 champion, not our No. 1
The increasingly pointed rhetoric between Louisiana and Washington dates
to the days after Hurricane Katrina when Blanco and Bush tussled over
control of troops in the state. The relationship since then has been
marked by back-biting and petty slights that leave a cloud over the
future of federal hurricane-related financing for the state.
Blanco said the administration's opposition to Baker's bill was like
being "kicked in the teeth," but she said she was even more disappointed
by Bush's comment that Louisiana does not have a plan to address its
"This spin is incorrect and we will not tolerate it," Blanco told
reporters in a brief news conference from her office in the state
"If they don't like this plan, then they need to tell us which plan they
do like," she said.
Blanco added that she would be amenable to meeting with Bush when she
visits Washington, D.C., next week, but that such a meeting has not been
scheduled or discussed. In the meantime, she acknowledged that the
president's rejection of Baker's bill will add to the strain between
Louisiana and Washington.
"I've worked hard not to have a chill in the air between me and the
president," Blanco said. "But I think now we have to call it like we see
Hearing set in Senate
Despite White House opposition to the Baker bill, there was a sign
Thursday that it was advancing in Congress. Landrieu and Sen. David
Vitter, R-La., announced late Thursday that the Senate Banking, Housing
and Urban Affairs Committee scheduled hearings on the bill beginning
Hurricane Katrina has generated a different kind of political heat for
the president on Capitol Hill. Earlier this week, Bush was criticized by
lawmakers in both parties heading the investigation into the
government's preparation for and response to the storm. Sen. Joseph
Lieberman, D-Conn., said the White House had exhibited "a near total
lack of cooperation" and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said it was
"completely inappropriate" that presidential aides limit what they will
discuss with investigators.
At Thursday's news conference, Bush defended his willingness to
cooperate by saying the White House had turned over 15,000 documents to
congressional investigators and has allowed staffers to be interviewed.
He cautioned, however, that he didn't want to allow such broad access
that presidential advisers would feel limited in what they told him.
"It will have a chilling effect on future advisers if the precedent is
such that when they give me advice that it's going to be subject to
scrutiny," Bush said. "We've given out all kinds of pages of documents,
and we're cooperating with investigators. And that's important for the
American people to know."
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Bill Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 383-7817