Congress Passes $51.8B Relief Bill

Members of the political group demonstrate 9-8-05 near the White House, demanding accountability from the Bush administration for the slow reaction to the Hurricane Katrina disaster on the Gulf Coast.
Acting with extraordinary speed, Congress approved an additional $51.8 billion for relief and recovery from Hurricane Katrina on Thursday. President Bush pledged to make it "easy and simple as possible" for uncounted, uprooted storm victims to collect food stamps and other government benefits.

"We're not asking for a handout, but we do need help," said Sen. Trent Lott — whose home state of Mississippi suffered grievously from the storm — as lawmakers cleared the bill for Bush's signature less than 24 hours after he requested it. The measure includes $2,000 debit cards for families to use on immediate needs.

The overwhelming, bipartisan support for the measure — it passed 411-10 in the House and 97-0 in the Senate — masked murmurs of concern about a rapidly rising price tag as well as a growing atmosphere of political jockeying in Congress less than two weeks after the hurricane battered 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 also designated Friday as a national day of prayer and remembrance for victims across the Gulf Coast.

CBS News Correspondent Gloria Borger reports that there is no rallying around the president as there was after 9/11 when America was united against the terrorists. This time, the enemy is incompetence.

"Things did not go perfectly," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. "We all know that there was a systemwide failure."

Americans generally agree that the government responded poorly to the hurricane. According to a poll, 77 percent said the federal government's response was inadequate, while 58 percent disapproved of how Mr. Bush handled the crisis.

The poll also shows that two out of three Americans think the president himself responded too slowly. His leadership rating – usually his strong suit – is the lowest of his presidency, a full 35 points lower than it was after 9/11.

Poll respondents also found state and local government responded inadequately to the disaster.

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."