The Republican chairman of a special House panel investigating the government's response to Hurricane Katrina decided Wednesday to reject, at least for now, a proposal to subpoena the White House for documents detailing internal communications before and after the storm hit on August 29.
But lawmakers agreed to subpoena the Pentagon for similar Katrina-related documents if Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld refuses to immediately turn them over or explain why he cannot. And the panel's chairman, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Virginia, left open the possibility of subpoenaing the White House later.
"We cannot do our job if we don't get these documents, and we won't get these documents if we don't subpoena them," said Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Louisiana, who sought to get internal memos, e-mails, and other communications from the White House and the Pentagon.
Davis agreed the Pentagon so far had not fully cooperated with the investigation, and should be subpoenaed. He said an immediate legal push against the White House might be premature before lawmakers are briefed Thursday by top administration officials.
Lawmakers "will have ample opportunity to, at that point, ask what was going on, who was there, and what was being said," Davis said. "Hopefully that will give the committee the information it needs. If it doesn't, we'll revisit it at that point."
The committee, which is wrapping up its investigation and plans to issue its findings February 15, requested hundreds of thousands of documents more than two months ago from the Bush administration, state and locals officials in Washington and the Gulf Coast. Though Davis said the White House has handed over some documents, it has refused others sent to and from White House chief of staff Andrew Card, citing executive privilege.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers also agreed to shelve subpoenas against Mississippi and Alabama officials for now after the states said they were trying to locate all the documents. Louisiana has handed over more than 100,000 documents to the committee.
While some Democrats are participating in the committee, party leaders have asked lawmakers to boycott the inquiry that they believe should be done by an independent commission.
The subpoena debate led the committee's final hearing, which was set to hear testimony from Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. The hearing came as Gulf Coast lawmakers scrambled to secure aid for the devastated region before Congress leaves Washington for the rest of the year.
Republican lawmakers pointedly questioned Blanco about why a mandatory evacuation was not ordered until the morning before Katrina hit.
"The city has this elaborate manual to cover these comprehensive emergency management plans, to cover evacuations," said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Kentucky, "It's detailed. All it needed was for the mayor and/or the governor to say 'Let's go."'
"We did that, sir. Don't pretend that we didn't do that," Blanco responded tersely. She said only 100,000 people, including emergency first responders, of the region's 1.3 million population ultimately failed to flee the storm.
"Just because the word 'mandatory' was not used until Sunday morning does not mean that we were not evacuating," Blanco said. "We certainly were evacuating. ... There's always people who believe they're tougher than storms."
Outlining her top priorities, Blanco said Congress has a responsibility to help rebuild New Orleans' levees and reminded lawmakers of devastation that could have been avoided if the floodwalls hadn't failed.
Funding for rigorous inspections and to install monitoring devices should be included in plans to rebuild and strengthen levees, Blanco said. Restoring the levees, and perhaps making them stronger, could cost tens of billions of dollars.
"The federal government funds our levees just as they do bridges and dams across the country, and we need you to provide adequate funding now," Blanco testified. "This is our number one priority. As I've said before, if the levees had not failed, we wouldn't be having this hearing."
In written testimony, Nagin called New Orleans "a city that is being allowed to die as we speak."
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