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Bush signs $51.8 billion aid package

President tells Katrina victims government 'with you for long haul'

President Bush on Wednesday announces immediate emergency aid to families displaced by Hurricane Katrina.



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Tom DeLay

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush on Thursday night signed a $51.8 billion emergency spending bill after promising survivors of Hurricane Katrina earlier in the day that the federal government "is going to be with you for the long haul."

The aid bill easily passed both houses of Congress on Thursday.

In an address aimed at the hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents displaced by the August 29 storm, Bush outlined plans to distribute $2,000 in federal aid to every affected household for immediate needs and to supply them with long-term assistance in the months ahead.

He also promised to reimburse states for the costs associated with taking in people forced out of their homes by the hurricane, telling state leaders, "You should not be penalized for showing compassion." (Full Story)

Families can register by contacting Federal Emergency Management Agency or Red Cross teams at emergency shelters, by calling (800) 621-FEMA or by visiting www.fema.govexternal link, Bush said.

The president also called for a national day of prayer.

"I ask that we pray, as Americans have always prayed in times of trial, with confidence in His purpose, with hope for a brighter future and with the humility to ask God to keep us strong, so we can better serve our brothers and sisters in need," he said.

House, Senate pass relief bill

The Senate late Thursday unanimously passed the $51.8 billion emergency supplemental bill to pay for Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.

The House passed its version of the bill earlier Thursday by a vote of 410-11. The 11 representatives who voted against it were Republicans.

Bush Thursday night praised Congress for moving swiftly "in strong bipartisan fashion to approve these additional emergency funds."

Action on the aid appropriation came one day after the leaders of the House and Senate announced that a bipartisan joint congressional committee will review the response, at all levels of government, to the hurricane.

Congress passed a $10.5 billion relief bill last week. The $51.8 billion first sought by the Bush administration Wednesday covers five weeks and amounts to roughly $1.4 billion a day.

The White House budget chief said "substantially more" money likely will be needed in the weeks and months ahead.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said Wednesday that the need for federal disaster aid could top $150 billion.

Cheney tours disaster area

Bush dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney to the disaster region Thursday. Cheney toured the damaged coastal city of Gulfport, Mississippi. After flying over the city, he met with state and local officials to discuss the recovery efforts. (Full Story)

"I think the progress we're making is significant," Cheney said. "I think the performance, in general, at least in terms of the information I've received from locals, is definitely very impressive."

Cheney was joined by his wife, Lynne, as well as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. He is heading to Louisiana later in the day.

Landrieu blasts federal response

On Capitol Hill Thursday, Louisiana's senior senator, Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, blasted the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, calling it "incompetent and insulting" to the people of her state.

"The record for rebuilding will be staggering, but it will pale in comparison to the staggering incompetence of this national government," Landrieu said in a speech on the Senate floor.

She also said it was unfair to fault local and state officials for what many have described as an inadequate response to the storm.

During her speech, Landrieu said a persistent lack of federal funding for levee maintenance may have contributed to the disaster.

"The people of our states have survived storms before. That was not what put us under. It was the levee system that broke in New Orleans," Landrieu said.

"Our federal government -- whether it was FEMA, or this administration, or former administrations, or us -- gambled that the predictions that countless experts voiced time and time again were mere rhetoric," she said. "Washington rolled the dice, and Louisiana lost."

She also faulted Bush for failing to recognize the severity of the situation when the levees broke, noting that public service announcements featuring the Mr. Bill clay animation character have been warning about such a scenario for two years.

"We know the president said 'I don't think anyone anticipated the break of the levee.' Everybody anticipated the break of the levee, Mr. President," she said. "How can it be that Mr. Bill was better informed than Mr. Bush?"

Joint panel announced

On Wednesday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, announced that a bipartisan joint congressional committee will review initial local, state and federal government response to Katrina. (Related story.)

Hastert and Frist said in a written statement that the committee would report its findings to Congress no later than February 15 next year.

Critics argue the federal government took too long to mobilize aid, causing thousands of storm victims to languish for days without food, water and other necessities.

The size of the panel has not been announced, and there is no word on when the hearings will begin. However, GOP leaders have said they don't want to pull officials out of the disaster area to testify.

Aides to House and Senate leaders told CNN the committee will have subpoena power, and standing House and Senate committees can use the investigative findings to craft legislation for reforms.

Leaders vow bipartisan effort

Hastert said Congress' first priority would be on the disaster relief efforts.

"The second thing that we have to do is to make sure that this doesn't happen again," he said. "And we need to look into the investigation of exactly what happened, whose responsibility, so if we move forward, we don't have this problem again."

Frist placed the blame for the slow response on all levels of government but warned against citing specific individuals.

Joining Hastert and Frist, Senate Minority Leader Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said Democrats would work closely with Congress' GOP leadership.

But Pelosi also called on the president to fire Michael Brown, FEMA's director. Brown and Department of Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff have come under intense criticism.

"I think we had a natural disaster, we all know that for sure. I think we had a second disaster in the manmade mistakes following Katrina," Pelosi said.

"I called upon the president to change the leadership of FEMA. If we're going to succeed at federal emergency management -- and I emphasize the word 'management' -- we have to have accountability and we have to have confidence. We don't have that at the head of FEMA."

Later Wednesday, Pelosi faulted Bush for appointing Brown to head FEMA in the first place. "He chose someone with absolutely no credentials," Pelosi said. She went on to say that the president was "oblivious" and "in denial" about the federal response to Katrina. (Watch Pelosi's comments -- 1:04)

However, White House press secretary Scott McClellan, asked by a reporter whether Pelosi's description of Bush's response was accurate, said, "No, it's not, because they discussed a lot of other things. And I think the president was just wanting to know what she was most concerned about.

"You all are well aware of how engaged this president is in the response efforts and making sure that we're meeting the immediate needs" of Katrina victims, he said.

CNN congressional producer Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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