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Rebuilding plan paving way for conservative goals

WASHINGTON -- Republican lawmakers in Congress have tried repeatedly in recent years to allow children to use federally funded vouchers to attend private schools. They have been defeated seven times since 1998.

At least nine times in the past decade, Republicans sought to repeal or undermine a Depression-era law that requires federal contractors to pay the ''prevailing wage" in the region they are working in. None of the efforts succeeded.

But now the GOP is poised to realize both of those goals. President Bush's reconstruction package for the Gulf Coast region devastated by Hurricane Katrina includes nearly $500 million for vouchers that children can use at private schools anywhere in the nation. And Bush declared a ''national emergency" to waive the prevailing wage law during the cleanup, freeing contractors to pay construction workers as little as the minimum wage, rather than the $8 to $10 prevailing wages in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi.

As the federal government's response to Katrina takes shape, the White House and Congress are enacting or seeking to pass a wide range of policies that have been consistently rejected by Congress, despite Republican majorities in the House and Senate. The Bush administration has lifted the requirement that contractors have affirmative-action plans, is seeking to weaken clean-air standards in the Gulf region, and has shelved rules governing the number of hours truckers can work. Republicans in Congress have proposed allowing the EPA to waive all environmental regulations during the rebuilding.

Republicans say the moves are intended to help the region rebuild as fast as possible. Moreover, with as much as $200 billion headed to the states hit by Katrina, the White House and Congress want to be sure that the money is spent in accordance with conservative principles, emphasizing the free market and the strength of the private sector, said Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the Senate's third-ranking Republican.

''The conditions that people were living in I would argue were a result of liberal policies," Santorum said. ''And now we've got some alternative ideas -- give us an opportunity to try to positively impact the lives of the poor in these communities. . . . Let's try something different that may work, because what has been tried in the past hasn't worked."

But Democrats contend that Republicans are using a national tragedy to slip in proposals they have not been able to achieve through the legislative process during normal times.

''They couldn't do these things under normal circumstances," said Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, the ranking Democrat on the education and workforce committee. ''The hurricane presents them an option to do this, under the guise of emergency. They say all of these things are suddenly necessary."

Added Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Newton: ''They're putting ideology ahead of everything else."

The rebuilding plan outlined by the White House -- a package that GOP leaders in Congress want to push through quickly -- includes conservative economic proposals that fit with Bush's vision of an ''ownership society," Republican leaders said.

The president is calling for tax breaks to promote redevelopment and create jobs in a ''Gulf Opportunity Zone." He wants to give free federal land to those who commit to building houses, to encourage homeownership. He is proposing personal worker retraining accounts that hurricane victims could use to start new careers. Republicans want to pay for at least a portion of the cleanup costs by cutting social programs such as Medicaid, the healthcare program for the poor. Citing the need to award rebuilding contracts as fast as possible, the Bush administration has laid aside for three months the requirement that federal contractors have written affirmative-action plans. Affirmative action has been a frequent target of conservative lawmakers, though attempts to ban its use in contracting have consistently fallen short in Congress.

On the environmental front, Senator James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who is chairman of the environment and public works committee, has proposed allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to waive or modify any environmental requirements during hurricane rebuilding. Last week, House Democrats obtained draft legislation being crafted by the Bush administration that would permanently empower the EPA to waive any regulation in the Clean Air Act whenever the agency finds that ''emergency conditions" exist.

Many Republicans have sought for years to water down or repeal the Clean Air Act, and weakening the law has been a particular priority of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas. Such measures have not advanced out of legislative committees in the past, though a proposal by the president in the aftermath of Katrina could garner more support.

Democrats and environmental groups warn that such a bill could free manufacturers, businesses, and power plants to produce toxic emissions without pollution controls, and could allow the sale of fuel with such lax standards that it could harm the vehicles it is put in. ''The victims of Hurricane Katrina are going to be hurt again: They're going to be exposed to more toxic chemicals," said Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, the top Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee.

Union officials contend that a series of steps taken by the Bush administration in the wake of Katrina appear to be direct strikes at them. Unions have fought school-voucher programs, since they would divert money from public to private schools. The unions had previously succeeded in blocking such plans in Congress; Republicans have only been able to create a $14 million pilot program that covers the District of Columbia.

The 1931 prevailing wage law, the Davis-Bacon Act, is considered by organized labor to be a key worker protection that prevents the federal government from driving down wages. After the hurricane, Bush lifted the rules limiting the hours that truckers can work, in the interest of ensuring steady supply lines into the Gulf. But more than three weeks after the storm, the president had not reinstated the limits, even as labor leaders say there are enough truckers to handle all needs.

Richard M. Rogers, executive secretary-treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council, said Bush has placed a higher priority on helping contractors than he has on helping workers in the region.

''It is unconscionable that President Bush would use a national tragedy to promote his antiworker agenda," Rogers said.

White House officials and members of Congress defend the steps as crucial to rebuilding the Gulf Coast with a minimum of red tape. Suspending the Davis-Bacon Act, for example, will open opportunities to more small employers to receive construction contracts, since some of them may not have been able to afford prevailing wages, said Claude Allen, an assistant to the president for domestic policy. He said contractors will still be required to comply with nondiscrimination requirements even if they do not have written affirmative-action plans.

School vouchers represent a conservative policy proposal that will have positive results in the areas affected by Katrina, said Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican. Both public and private schools have opened their doors to children displaced by the hurricane, and federal support should recognize the importance of all schools, he said.

''For heaven's sake, this is not the beginning of some big new voucher program," said Alexander, a vouchers supporter. ''Katrina didn't discriminate among children, and neither should we."

But Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a longtime vouchers opponent and the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee that oversees education, takes a different view. ''We ought to be reopening schools, not reopening ideological debates of the past," he said. ''With all the challenges we're facing, to add ideological battles is unworthy of the generosity of Americans. This is unconscionable."

Rick Klein can be reached at

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