Bush laying out further hurricane aid plans

As US congress hurried toward approval of a €41.8bn emergency hurricane aid package, US President Bush George today mapped a plan to get a wide range of government benefits – from medical care to job training – to storm victims who have scattered around the US.

As US congress hurried toward approval of a €41.8bn emergency hurricane aid package, US President Bush George today mapped a plan to get a wide range of government benefits – from medical care to job training – to storm victims who have scattered around the US.

Bush, under fire for the government’s response to the devastation so far, was to announce initiatives aimed at helping people “get back on their feet” in a address from the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan said.

The plan was to cover not only the immediate distribution of debit cards of around €1,500 per household to families evacuated from homes in Louisiana and Mississippi, but other federal government benefits such as child care, food stamps, housing, and unemployment insurance, McClellan said.

The White House provided no immediate specifics about how the task of finding - and verifying – beneficiaries would be approached.

Separately, Democrats and Republicans agreed that much had gone wrong in the government response to Hurricane Katrina but squabbled about what to do about it.

“There was a systemwide failure,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist after Republicans met with Bush at the White House. He said there were problems at the local, state and federal levels and “we will get to the bottom of that” in a bipartisan congressional investigation.

Democratic leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor that a Republican-led probe would be biased.

Reid said Democrats would support the spending bill, which would spend well over around €740.6m a day for the recovery needs of victims of Hurricane Katrina. But he complained that most of the money would go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency – “Is there anyone, anyone, who believes that we should continue to let the money go to FEMA?” – and said further measures were needed to deal with health care, housing and education.

The House of Representatives as early as Thursday was expected to approve the emergency spending bill that the Bush administration, under attack for its response to the devastating Gulf Coast storm, described as the latest instalment in the costly relief effort.

“We will in fact need substantially more” money, said White House budget director Josh Bolten, estimating the funds would cover expenses for “a few weeks”.

Prospects were more uncertain in the Senate, where Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of hurricane-ravaged Louisiana threatened to hold out for more funding.

Republicans said that any attempt to amend the bill could lead to delays in getting the measure to Bush for his signature before current funds are used up.

The €8.4bn hurricane relief that Bush signed into law Friday was expected to run out this evening.

Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, arrived on the Gulf Coast to talk to local officials, meet with emergency workers and tour disaster sites in Gulfport, Miss, New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

In Gulfport, Cheney inspected damage, said there was much recovery work to be done but added that he was struck by a “very positive, can-do” attitude.

With the death toll mounting across the Gulf Coast, the White House would not estimate how many people had died.

“It’s going to be a very ugly situation when those flood waters recede and we start to go in and recover bodies and we look at the additional public health issues that need to be addressed,” McClellan said. “This is a massive catastrophe, one that this nation has never seen the likes of.”

The spending bill was being debated against the backdrop of partisan sparring over an unusual joint House-Senate congressional committee to investigate the government’s readiness and response.

Democrats pushed for an independent panel to investigate the disaster, similar to the 9/11 Commission that examined government missteps leading to the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.

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