WASHINGTON — Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco gave no ground to Capitol Hill critics Wednesday, saying she and other state officials did all they could to save lives after Hurricane Katrina and that she feared Congress' focus on missteps was an excuse to deny more money for reconstruction.
Blanco offered her first public accounting to Congress on her handling of the crisis as House and Senate negotiators wrangled over a new aid package for the states hit by the massive storm.
"Looking back is a necessary exercise, and we will improve our response," Blanco told a House committee. "But none of this negates the obligation of this Congress to help American citizens from the Gulf Coast who literally and figuratively are feeling they have been left out in the cold."
Shortly after Blanco testified, the committee issued a subpoena to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld seeking Pentagon records relating to the help it provided to hurricane-stricken areas. It was the first time the GOP-controlled committee has moved to compel the Bush administration to hand over documents.
The sharp words Blanco exchanged with lawmakers and the difficult negotiations over additional funding underscored the increasingly partisan and charged atmosphere surrounding efforts to rebuild in the hurricane's aftermath.
House and Senate committees are wrapping up inquiries into the much-criticized response by federal, state and local officials to the disaster and preparing to issue their findings in February. The assignment of blame could help shape the debate in next year's congressional campaigns over which party is most capable of governing effectively.
Democrats have said the administration's failure to mount a quick, effective relief effort resulted from its shortchanging of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other offices and programs in order to pour resources into the fight against terrorism, the war in Iraq and tax cuts skewed toward wealthy Americans.
Republicans have said it was the incompetence of local and state officials that hampered efforts by the White House and FEMA to help.
Days after the hurricane hit, Republican lawmakers charged that Blanco and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, both Democrats, failed to convey their needs quickly or clearly and inadequately carried out their own emergency plan.
Blanco may be the politician with the most at stake. Her popularity has sagged since the hurricane, and if she were to have a chance at winning reelection in 2007, "state voters must see some substantial progress in hurricane recovery and rebuilding," said Wayne Parent, a political scientist at Louisiana State University.
Blanco's testimony offered her "a significant opportunity ... to begin to repair some of the damage to her reputation that resulted from much of the news coverage of the hurricane response," he said.
The finger-pointing has hampered the congressional investigations into what went wrong and what should be done to fix the problems.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) refused to appoint Democrats to serve on the House committee investigating the hurricane response. Pelosi and other Democrats demanded an independent, bipartisan investigation, which Republicans rejected.
Despite Pelosi's stance, a handful of Democrats from Gulf Coast states have sat in on the House panel's hearings.
One of them, Rep. Charlie Melancon of Louisiana, opened Wednesday's session with a demand that the committee subpoena the White House and Defense Department to hand over documents dealing with their response to the hurricane.
Republicans initially rejected the move as political grandstanding, saying they wanted to give the administration more time to voluntarily produce the documents.
But Wednesday night, committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) issued a subpoena demanding that the Defense Department turn over documents on its hurricane response by Dec. 30.
Also, committee members were scheduled to meet privately today with Kenneth Rapuano, the White House's deputy assistant to the president for domestic security, to discuss the federal relief efforts. Davis said that, if necessary, he was prepared to issue a subpoena to the White House for e-mails and documents it has refused to produce.
Melancon said the committee's credibility was at stake. Without the documents, he said, the committee's effort would be dismissed as a whitewash meant to protect the administration.
Blanco was joined by Nagin in appearing before the House committee, and both pleaded with lawmakers not to lose sight of the large-scale help needed by the Gulf Coast. They asked for billions more in aid to strengthen the New Orleans levee system, revive businesses, build permanent and temporary housing for storm survivors, and reimburse school districts across the nation that have taken in Louisiana students.
New Orleans is "a city that is being allowed to die as we speak," Nagin said.