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KATRINA'S AFTERMATH

Joint Investigation of Response Called Off

Republicans plan House and Senate inquiries while Democrats call for an independent panel.

September 20, 2005|Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans signaled Monday that they had abandoned their plan to conduct a joint House-Senate probe of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

In announcing a joint inquiry earlier this month, the Republican leadership said it would be the most efficient way to investigate the administration's much-criticized hurricane relief effort. But on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) conceded that he had been unable to overcome Democratic opposition to a joint investigation.

Democratic leaders have refused to appoint members to a joint committee, citing the lack of equal representation for their party. Democrats say that would make it possible for Republicans to control the investigation.

As an alternative, Democrats have insisted on an independent inquiry, saying the Republican-controlled Congress cannot be trusted to aggressively investigate the Republican administration.

With the joint congressional investigation apparently off the table, Republicans are planning separate House and Senate inquiries.

But it was far from clear Monday whether the Democrats would cooperate with those efforts.

The wrangling underscores the partisanship that has surrounded much of the postmortem into hurricane relief efforts. It also raises questions about whether Congress can conduct an inquiry into the response that will be seen as credible.

Democrats seemed determined to keep pressure on the Republican leadership and the White House to appoint an independent panel modeled on the commission President Bush named to investigate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"If Katrina families will come forward, maybe that will be the next chapter, and that will get the [independent] investigation going," one senior Democratic Senate aide said.

In a letter sent Monday to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Frist proposed that instead of a joint congressional inquiry, the Senate would conduct its own investigation and coordinate its efforts with the House "so as to minimize the burdens placed on those who are coming to Washington, D.C., from the Gulf Coast region."

Frist also said he was willing to appoint senators serving on the chamber's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee as the members of the Senate's special panel to investigate the disaster. But Rebecca Kirszner, a spokeswoman for Reid, said the minority leader had rejected the proposal.

"The American people deserve real answers. Until Republicans agree that politics does not have a role in the investigative process, Sen. Reid will not sign on," Kirszner said.

Meanwhile, Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was having no more luck persuading House Democrats to participate in that chamber's inquiry.

Late last week, Hastert named Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Governmental Reform Committee, to head the House's special panel investigating the hurricane response. Davis may name Republican members to that committee as early as today and is planning its first hearing later this week.

But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) remained adamant that Democrats would not participate in the House committee.

"Nothing's changed," said Jennifer Crider, Pelosi's spokeswoman.

Congressional Republicans have said they believe Democrats would pay a political price if they were seen as obstructing an investigation into the hurricane relief effort.

"We intend to move forward," said Ron Bonjean, Hastert's spokesman. "We are naming members to the committee and hope to get this moving as soon as possible, and we hope that Democrats want to join the effort."

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