WASHINGTON – The House Friday extended $10.5 billion in federal aid to states ravaged Monday by Hurricane Katrina, amid complaints from Democrats, including Maryland leaders, about the delay in meeting victims’ needs.
Before the House’s unanimous voice vote, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, joined other black leaders at the National Press Club to call for immediate government action to help the thousands of survivors suffering from lack of food, water and shelter.
“To the president of the United States, I simply say that God cannot be pleased with our response,” Cummings said, adding he hoped the president would “synchronize his conduct with his conscience.”
State and local governments in unaffected areas need to step up and provide food, shelter and other aid, Cummings and the other leaders said.
“If we all share the load we can get this resolved quite quickly and quite easily so that it’s not a major strain on any one jurisdiction,” Cummings said.
In a letter to President Bush Friday, Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Baltimore, suggested that “underutilized” military bases and other federal facilities be used as emergency shelters — a suggestion echoed by Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Cockeysville — and urged that emergency cash be provided to displaced people through Social Security.
Ruppersberger cut short his family vacation in Ocean City to return for the vote.
“We are now a nation at war with time,” Ruppersberger said, adding that rescue workers should go “street by street and house by house,” searching for victims. He also called for a national database where survivors can locate missing family members and friends.
The emergency bill allocates $10 billion to the Department of Homeland Security, the lead agency for relief efforts, and $500 million to the Department of Defense.
The House action followed the Senate’s unanimous approval Thursday of an identical amount of aid. Neither of Maryland’s senators attended the vote.
In discussing the aid package before the House vote, lawmakers suggested the government needed to move away from “tossing together” emergency funding each time a disaster struck, and focus instead on long-term preparedness. Democrats also questioned whether the presence of National Guard troops in Iraq had depleted resources necessary for recovery on the Gulf Coast.
Most of Maryland’s eight lawmakers did not attend the special session of Congress, called unexpectedly during the August recess, to pass the emergency supplemental spending bill. Leaders on both sides of the aisle had made clear that attendance was “unnecessary” because the bill would pass with unanimous consent, said a spokeswoman for Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, who was out of town.
Reps. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville; Al Wynn, D-Largo; Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, and Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, were also unable to attend.
Maryland legislators absent from voting used their Web sites to release statements offering sympathy and support to those affected by the hurricane.
“Congress clearly has a responsibility to investigate what went wrong both before and after the hurricane and the flooding in New Orleans, and to determine how to better respond to future natural and other national disasters,” Hoyer said in a prepared statement.
Others balanced their call for more effective disaster relief with the need for nonpartisanship.
“It’s not about Democrats or Republicans,” Ruppersberger said. “It’s about helping our fellow Americans in their darkest hour.”
Capital News Service reporters Brooke Howell, Jacqueline Ruttimann, Caroline Zaayer, Katie Wilmeth, Dorcas Taylor and Christopher Stollar contributed to this report.