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Congressional Republicans consolidate investigations into response

WASHINGTON—Republican leaders halted congressional investigations into the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina on Wednesday and announced a new joint Senate-House of Representatives inquiry that won't convene for weeks and will deliver its conclusions in February.

President Bush asked for nearly $52 billion in additional relief, his budget director promised that even more will be needed within weeks, and some lawmakers estimated that the total cost will reach $200 billion.

Congress' budget watchdog predicted that the disaster would slow U.S. economic growth to an annual rate as low as half a percent in this year's final half, sharply down from the 3 percent-plus rate in the first half.

With Democrats condemning the Bush administration's initial response to the hurricane and several Senate and House committees calling for separate investigations, Republican congressional leaders said they'd consolidate all inquiries under one joint committee.

The last such joint investigation was the 1987 Iran-Contra inquiry during the Reagan presidency.

"We all agree that in many areas the initial relief response to Hurricane Katrina was unacceptable at the local, state and federal levels," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. "This joint committee will be tasked with reviewing at all levels of government the immediate preparation and recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Americans deserve answers."

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, will co-chair the panel, aides said; the House co-chair hasn't been selected.

Democrats denounced the Republican leadership's move and called for an independent commission to investigate the government's response.

"An investigation of the Republican administration by a Republican-controlled Congress is like having a pitcher call his own balls and strikes," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Earlier, Reid had urged a Senate committee to determine, among other things, whether the president's vacation during the hurricane delayed the federal response.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California described Bush as "oblivious, in denial, dangerous." She said that in a meeting with Bush on Tuesday she'd urged him to fire Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"What didn't go right?" she quoted Bush as saying.

Democrats also asked Republicans to delay planned federal budget cuts of about $35 billion, a request that the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., rejected, saying the reductions wouldn't affect any effort to help victims of Katrina.

Of the $51.8 billion in new spending that the White House requested, $50 billion would go to FEMA, $1.4 billion to the Department of Defense and $400 million to the Army Corps of Engineers. The money was in addition to the $10.5 billion that Congress approved last Friday.

Josh Bolten, the director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget, said disaster spending over the weekend had climbed to $2 billion a day—much of it for one-time contracting costs—and that the new $51 billion would cover only a few weeks' expenses.

"My expectation is that we will need substantially more," Bolten said.

Bolten acknowledged that such spending will deepen federal budget deficits for the next year or two, but contended that over five years the administration should be able to meet its goal of halving the deficit.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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