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Parties offer own versions of aid

WASHINGTON -- As Congress gave swift approval to $51.8 billion to help fund recovery efforts on the Gulf Coast, President Bush laid out the federal government's broad plans yesterday to extend health benefits, job training, and immediate financial assistance to storm victims who lost their homes and livelihoods in Hurricane Katrina.

Bush said the government would quickly deliver $2,000 debit cards to heads of households displaced by the storm, and said all residents of counties declared as disaster areas would be granted ''evacuee status." The designation will make residents available for a range of federal benefits, including mental health counseling, housing, child care, and nutrition programs, the president said.

''We have much more work to do," Bush said. ''But the people who have been hurt by this storm . . . need to know that the government is going to be with you for the long haul."

Bush, under fire from an array of critics for a lackluster reaction after the deadly hurricane, used the announcement to portray himself as engaged and involved in the government's plans to help the victims. The president declared a national day of prayer and remembrance for Katrina victims next Friday, and Vice President Dick Cheney toured the devastation of New Orleans and Gulfport, Miss., his first trip to the disaster zone.

Like an emergency $10.5 billion package passed late last week, the extra $51.8 billion in aid to hurricane victims swept through Congress with broad bipartisan support last night. Still, Democrats kept up their fierce critique of the president, then offered an assistance plan of their own.

Senate minority leader Harry Reid unveiled his party's proposal for more direct assistance to affected residents, including guaranteed Medicaid health coverage for affected residents, housing vouchers for evacuees, access to federal facilities for temporary shelter, and six-month waivers on any loan payments or financial obligation to the federal government.

Reid questioned Bush's decision to have the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- widely blamed for a slow, haphazard reaction to the storm -- handle the funds.

''After everything that has happened with FEMA, is there anyone who believes that we should continue to let the money go to FEMA and be distributed by them?" said Reid, Democrat of Nevada.

Reid and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi announced yesterday that they will boycott a commission that Republican leaders proposed to investigate the government's response to Katrina. They said the task force will be packed with Republicans -- the majority party -- and is designed to let Bush and the White House off the hook.

Both Reid and Pelosi called for an independent commission -- like the one that investigated the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- to scrutinize the government's preparedness and response.

''Let's not have a charade about oversight," said Pelosi, Democrat of California. Republican aides said the commission would proceed even if Democrats decided not to participate.

Congress moved swiftly on a number of fronts yesterday, as lawmakers sought to cut through red tape and get aid to victims.

The House approved bills to relax federal student aid repayment rules and ease work requirements on welfare recipients in areas affected by the hurricane, while the Senate readied a package of government loans designed to help small businesses in the affected region get back on their feet.

In addition, federal legislation will allow small businesses across the country that rely heavily on gasoline -- farms, trucking companies, and shipping concerns -- to apply for low-interest loans, said Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts.

''We're trying to provide some relief to them that's immediate, to cope with these prices," said Kerry, ranking Democrat on the Senate's Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee.

With total recovery efforts expected to cost as much as $200 billion, pressure mounted on Bush to ensure federal supervision of hurricane relief funds. Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, urged the president to appoint someone to guard against wasteful spending and fraud.

''We have all the earmarks here of a rush to spend money that is very dangerous," Sessions said.

Senate Budget Committee chairman Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, said the White House should set up a special oversight commission for recovery and rehabilitation. He questioned the government's current planning, noting that federal officials have asked New Hampshire recreational vehicle dealers about buying campers to use as temporary housing in the stricken region.

''Maybe that's what we'll end up doing, but I would hope before we bought up all the Winnebagos and send them to the Gulf Coast, we would think about whether that's the best way to proceed," Gregg said.

In Mississippi, Cheney said he saw no need to appoint a ''czar" to oversee relief efforts, saying ''we have very good people involved" already. The vice president seemed surprised by the extent of the damage but sounded an optimistic note.

''Everybody I've met with was upbeat" and determined to rebuild, Cheney said. Nonetheless, during the press conference, a young man twice shouted an expletive at Cheney. Asked whether he was hearing a lot of such criticism, Cheney responded, ''That's the first time I've heard it."

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