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Katrina response funds continue to flow
Updated: 2005-09-15 18:33

Congress is moving quickly to provide tax cuts and health care benefits in response to Hurricane Katrina as the money continues to flow on Capitol Hill for victims of the devastation.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., call for creation of an independent commission to investigate the response to Hurricane Katrinia during a news conference on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2005. [AP]

Congress is acting Thursday as President Bush makes his fourth trip to the region to give a nationally televised address on both his short- and long-term recovery and reconstruction plans for New Orleans and other stricken areas.

A House bill adopted Wednesday by the Senate on a voice vote would provide more than 350,000 families left homeless by Katrina with emergency housing vouchers averaging $600 a month for up to six months.

Any displaced family, regardless of income, would be eligible for the program, which is slated to cost $3.5 billion over six months.

Next, the House and Senate hope to rush through a tax bill that, among other steps, waives penalties for hurricane victims who tap into their 401(k) retirement savings accounts and provides a tax deduction to anyone who houses evacuees for two months or more.

Also Thursday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley planed to introduce a bipartisan $5 billion to $7 billion plan to speed health care to those displaced by Katrina by easing rules for the Medicaid federal health care program.

And the Senate is likely to pass and send to Bush a House-passed bill to temporarily ease rules requiring welfare recipients to work 30 hours a week for their benefits while extending the overall welfare program through the end of the year.

The spate of Katrina-related bills comes as Congress and Bush are in the initial phases of responding to the desperate needs of the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. Long-term rebuilding and recovery efforts are still a work in progress, but are expected to cost at least $200 billion.

Lawmakers competed to demonstrate how seriously they are taking the Katrina tragedy, with Senate GOP leaders urging a "Marshall Plan for the Gulf Coast as soon as possible."

The housing plan, by Sen. Paul Sarbanes (news, bio, voting record), D-Md., was attached on a voice vote to an unrelated spending bill covering the Commerce and Housing and Urban Development departments. The Senate was set to pass the overall bill Thursday, but a final version will have to be worked out with the House, which passed a similar spending bill for the two departments last June.

"Any person or family displaced as a result of Hurricane Katrina ... could get a temporary housing voucher. This is without regard to their income situation," Sarbanes said. "It recognizes the storm hit rich and poor alike, and this is an effort to give them some immediate, short-term help so they can move out of the situation in which they find themselves."

Senate Democratic and GOP aides said the generous housing plan might not survive talks with the more conservative House.

Grassley said he thought the Medicaid measure could pass this week. The bill would provide Medicaid care in some instances to able-bodied single men, a big departure from current rules. And unemployment benefits would be extended for 13 weeks for people in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama whose benefits have run out.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is announcing Thursday that it will pick up all costs of Medicaid care for low-income evacuees who fled to Texas. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (news, bio, voting record), R-Texas, received a phone call late Wednesday from CMS Administrator Mark McClellan about the forthcoming aid, said her spokesman, Chris Paulitz.

An estimated 250,000 refugees from the flooding, an overwhelming majority of whom are believed to be qualified for Medicaid, are now in Texas. For five months state matching funds that are part of the Medicaid program will be waived, said Paulitz.

The public supports the expensive recovery efforts, according a CBS/New York Times poll released Wednesday. By a 56-37 margin, those surveyed said they would be willing to pay higher taxes for Katrina recovery. By wide margins, the public says rebuilding New Orleans is more important than cutting taxes or reforming Social Security, two top items on the Bush agenda.

Meanwhile, by a party-line vote, the Republican-controlled Senate on Wednesday rejected a Democratic proposal to establish an independent, bipartisan commission — similar to the one launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks — to examine what went wrong in Katrina's wake.

Also Wednesday, Republican leaders tapped Rep. Peter King (news, bio, voting record), R-N.Y., to chair the House Homeland Security Committee. King, in his seventh term, replaces former Rep. Chris Cox of California, who was appointed chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

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