Congress Prepares to Send Emergency Aid

9-1-05 - The Bush administration intends to seek more than $10 billion to cover immediate relief needs in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, congressional officials said Thursday, and lawmakers made plans to approve the request by the weekend.

Several officials said $10 billion would cover immediate costs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the government's front-line responder in cases of natural disasters. Several hundred million dollars would also be provided to fund the Pentagon's disaster relief efforts, congressional aides said.

FEMA is spending more than $500 million a day as it struggles to respond to devastating flooding in New Orleans and severe destruction that spans the length of the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida.

That requires an immediate infusion of cash, said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., with at least two subsequent bills to follow. He said a second bill would be needed in two or three weeks at current spending rates, with another bill to follow that one after better damage estimates are in hand.

"We can expect three separate appropriations bills as we go through this recovery process," Cochran said. "Over half a billion dollars a day is being spent by FEMA."

It is not necessary for all members of Congress to interrupt their vacations to return to Washington to approve the funding. Several aides indicated the money would likely be approved without a roll call vote, a so-called "voice vote" practice often used when there is no dissent about a piece of legislation.

"It will pass by unanimous consent," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who said that his office had been told of the plans by the office of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

"It would take a longer amount of time to get all our members back into session. Victims of Hurricane Katrina don't have that kind of time," said Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

The billions undoubtedly will mark only the first installment of the federal response to the hurricane that President Bush on Wednesday called one of the worst natural disasters in the country's history.

It could be months before New Orleans is cleared of flood waters; thousands are dead across the Gulf Coast and the hurricane left uncounted tens of thousands homeless while destroying roads and bridges and disrupting the oil industry that normally flourishes in the Gulf of Mexico.

Four separate hurricanes that pummeled Florida last year prompted Congress to pass a total of $13.6 billion in emergency aid through two separate bills, including a $2 billion measure that was sent to President Bush the day lawmakers returned from their summer recess.

White House spokesman Scott Milburn said Tuesday that FEMA had about $2.5 billion available for immediate assistance such as shelter, food and medical care.