President Bush pledged Thursday to provide $2,000 in immediate government assistance for victims of Hurricane Katrina, as well as a full range of health care, job training and other benefits, as Congress hastened to approve a $51.8 billion emergency relief bill.
Mr. Bush also designated Friday as a national day of prayer and remembrance for victims across the Gulf Coast.
Under fire for the government's slow response, Mr. Bush said "the people that have been hurt by this storm need to know that the government is going to be with you for the long haul."
Mr. Bush said he recognized that many displaced people lacked proper identification or even a change of clothes, and said the government would "cut through the red tape" to ensure that they receive the help they need. He encouraged evacuees to register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to receive the immediate $2,000 in assistance and then longer term aid.
Mr. Bush announced his latest initiative as Democratic congressional leaders said they intended to boycott a proposed Republican-led congressional committee to investigate the administration's readiness and response to the storm.
"I do not believe that the committee proposed by Speaker Hastert and Senator Frist is in the best interest of the American people," said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she won't appoint any Democrats to the joint committee, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Fuss, because Republicans set it up on their own with a false claim that it is bipartisan, but it's actually designed to be a "whitewash"
Mr. Bush said that more than 400,000 families have registered with FEMA but tens of thousands more people still need to be processed.
"The responsibility of caring for hundreds of thousands of citizens who no longer have homes is going to place many demands on our nation," the president said. "We have many difficult days ahead, especially as we recover those who did not survive the storm."
Mr. Bush said the government also would relax requirements so that evacuees relocated far from home could receive state-administered federal benefits, such as Medicaid, welfare, child care, mental health and substance abuse treatment, food stamps, housing, foster care, nutrition for poor, pregnant women, school lunch and unemployment checks. He said states that are housing evacuees should "not be penalized for showing compassion" — meaning the government would reimburse them.
The developments unfolded as the Labor Department reported that an estimated 10,000 workers who lost their jobs because of the storm filed for unemployment benefits last week, the first wave of what likely will be hundreds of thousands of such claims.
Passage of Mr. Bush's call for $51.8 billion in funding was a certainty in Congress, although Reid was critical of the administration's plans for running billions of dollars through the widely criticized FEMA.
Administration officials said the money was needed by day's end, and one official said government costs were running as high as $2 billion a day in the wake of the hurricane that spread destruction along the Gulf Coast and led to flooding that left large portions New Orleans under several feet of water.
In addition to his afternoon appearance, Mr. Bush dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney to the stricken region, and met with Republican congressional leaders at the White House as he struggled to shed the criticism that has followed him and his administration since the storm struck.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said afterward there had been a "a systemwide failure" in the response to the storm. Citing problems are the local, state and federal levels, he said, "We will get to the bottom of that" in a congressional investigation.
CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller reports that Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said that Republican leaders discussed appointment of a Katrina relief czar with President Bush on Thursday morning and that he was "very receptive" to the idea and, in fact, had already thought of that.
Other Republicans have told CBS News they are very concerned about the long-term political ramifications of the bungled relief effort and that the president needs to put someone in charge as soon as possible who has credibility and credentials.
How about Rudy Giuliani? On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that Giuliani said he would be willing to take a role in the relief effort but was not seeking a position. As for heading embattled FEMA, Giuliani said: "Maybe in a few years. Right now, I'm not a candidate for anything right now."
Americans generally agree that the government responded poorly to the hurricane. According to a, 77 percent said the federal government's response was inadequate, while 58 percent disapproved of how Mr. Bush handled the crisis.
Poll respondents also found state and local government responded inadequately to the disaster.
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," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.