WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republicans on Wednesday scuttled an attempt by Sen. Hillary Clinton to establish an independent, bipartisan panel patterned after the 9/11 Commission to investigate what went wrong with federal, state and local governments' response to Hurricane Katrina.
The New York Democrat's bid to establish the panel — which would have also made recommendations on how to improve the government's disaster response apparatus — failed to win the two-thirds majority needed to overcome procedural hurdles. Clinton got only 44 votes, all from Democrats and independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont. Fifty-four Republicans all voted no.
"Just as with 9/11, we did not get to the point where we believed we understood what happened until an independent investigation was conducted," Clinton said.
The Senate vote is hardly likely to be the last word on whether to create an independent commission or as an alternative a special congressional committee to investigate Katrina. The 9/11 Commission was established in 2002 after resistance from Republicans and the White House, and opinion polls show the public strongly supports the idea. In a CNN/USA Today Gallup poll taken Sept. 8-11, 70 percent of those surveyed supported an independent panel to investigate the government's response to Katrina. Only 29 percent were opposed.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has rebuffed a bid by House and Senate GOP leaders to create a committee patterned after the 1987 Iran-Contra panel that would have a GOP majority — reflecting their dominance of Congress.
Reid has instead vowed that any bid by Republican leaders to establish a special bipartisan committee involving lawmakers from both House and Senate will go forward only if Democrats have equal representation.
Separately, Senate Homeland Security Committee chair Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Wednesday that Post-9/11 changes to improve the government response to catastrophic disasters failed their first major test in Hurricane Katrina's wake.
Despite billions of dollars to boost disaster preparedness at all levels of government, the response to Katrina was plagued by confusion, communication failures and widespread lack of coordination, said Collins as she opened hearings into the disaster.
"At this point, we would have expected a sharp, crisp response to this terrible tragedy," Collins said. "Instead, we witnessed what appeared to be a sluggish initial response."
The hearing marked Congress' first step in investigating major gaps in the country's readiness and response systems that Katrina exposed. It comes even as Republican and Democrats grapple over whether to appoint an unusual House-Senate panel to investigate the matter, or to create an 9/11-style commission.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the committee, said the response to Katrina "has shaken the public's confidence in the ability of government at all levels to protect them in a crisis."
Lawmakers said they did not ask officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Homeland Security Department to appear at the hearing out of fear that would disrupt the ongoing recovery process in the battered Gulf Coast. Instead, a slew of former city and state officials testified about their experiences in facing faced major disasters in their communities.
Calling Katrina a "national tragedy," former New Orleans Mayor Marc H. Morial put the primary responsibility for disaster response squarely on the federal government's shoulders. Morial, president of the National Urban League, was New Orleans' mayor from 1994 to 2004.
Meanwhile, the House, by voice vote, on Wednesday approved legislation that provides liability protections for people and groups providing volunteer aid for Hurricane Katrina victims.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said the Red Cross has cited lawsuit concerns among people interested in taking evacuees into their homes and that doctors traveling to states where they are not licensed face increased liability.
The bill, which needs Senate action, would protect from lawsuit volunteers who in good faith and without expectation of compensation offer aid or medical assistance. It would not protect those who willfully carry out criminal acts.
Other bills, however, to cut federal red tape and otherwise make it easier to get aid to Katrina victims have hit a slow patch as lawmakers wrestle over how to shape their response.
They include proposals to provide Medicaid health benefits to those made homeless by Katrina, lift work rules for welfare recipients, and implement tax changes to help hurricane victims and charitable donors.
i guess money was better spent getting a commission together to find out if clinton got a knobber in the oval office. the republicans thought that was a good idea. i guess you wouldnt want a commission that would point the finger of blame squarely at your parties leadership. i cant believe that not one republican thought this was a good idea.