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DISASTER RELIEF

Miss. GOP muscle may get 1st shot at funding

WASHINGTON -- A triumvirate of Republican power brokers may give Mississippi first dibs in the post-Hurricane Katrina grab for federal disaster funds even though the US government focused its initial response on New Orleans.

The state's senior senator, Thad Cochran, is the new chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the panel charged with determining how much and where the recovery money will be spent.

Its junior senator's home -- a place where GOP leaders from across the county once bantered about politics from rocking chairs on a porch overlooking the Gulf of Mexico -- was flattened by Katrina.

''There's nothing there now," Senator Trent Lott said of his historic Pascagoula house, which had been 12 feet above sea level. ''I found my refrigerator . . . It went down the street two blocks, turned left, and went into a neighbor's yard."

Add Governor Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman, and Mississippi packs more political muscle than the storm-ravaged states of Louisiana and Alabama.

Television and the Internet have introduced the men to the world in intensely emotional terms.

Before the cameras, Barbour wept, bereft of words, as he tried to describe the scene in the first hours after the storm.

On the Senate floor, the genteel Cochran spoke softly about the storm.

''I don't know of anything that has depressed me more than seeing what I saw yesterday in my state," Cochran said late last week when he presided over an emergency session to send $10.5 billion to the region.

Over the telephone, Lott spoke of the storm as a ''great equalizer."

''My problems are not nearly as bad as others,' " he said Friday. ''My heart was just breaking yesterday and the day before and today."

After touring the flattened Gulf Coast with lawmakers from the region, President Bush made it clear that Mississippi's senior politicians have his ear.

''Trent was telling me that we've got to get that port of Pascagoula open so we can get . . . foreign crude oil to the refinery," Bush told reporters.

That could take weeks or months, but Mississippi made other progress toward recovery this week; the Navy hospital ship Comfort will dock at Pascagoula within days to offer its medical supplies, trauma room, and as many as 1,000 beds, Lott said.

Mississippi's political muscle follows decades of being in the shadow of Louisiana, clout-wise, on Capitol Hill.

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