From: Times Picayune
By: Bill Walsh
Gov. Kathleen Blanco is getting lots of empathy on Capitol Hill, but no firm commitments yet about whether Congress will come through with the billions of dollars needed to bail out Louisiana's "Road Home" rebuilding program.
On the first day of a two-day blitz through the nation's capital, Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said lawmakers have expressed willingness to help, but are vague on critical details such as how much Congress will spend and when the money might materialize.
Congress allocated $7.6 billion to Road Home for grants to help owners of hurricane-damaged homes repair and rebuild. But the need has turned out to be greater than expected and the money is projected to run out early next year. Blanco is seeking between $3 billion and $4 billion to cover the shortfall and permission to use $1.2 billion in hazard mitigation money for Road Home grants instead. The state also is urging Congress to waive the local share of some $7 billion in New Orleans area levee improvements.
"We've been very well-received," Blanco said after making a presentation to the House Democratic Caucus. "We're asking both parties to branch out and embrace our needs. These are critical moments for Louisiana."
Plans in flux
One reason that House leaders have been unable to give definitive answers is that their own plans are uncertain. The Democratic majority is debating whether to take up a controversial $190 billion Iraq war spending request immediately or wait until next year to consider it. The war spending bill is seen as an ideal vehicle to attach additional hurricane-recovery assistance, but a six-month delay could mean interruptions in Road Home payouts.
Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the majority whip and designated Democratic vote counter in the House, was encouraging about the state's chances of getting some bailout, but provided few details about how or when it would happen.
"If you look at what (the Democratic leadership has) done with this, I think that's a good indication of what we'll do in the future," Clyburn said.
The Louisiana group, which also includes New Orleans Recovery Chief Ed Blakely, is expected to go to the White House today to meet with President Bush's Recovery Coordinator Donald Powell and Al Hubbard, the domestic economic policy adviser, as well as with Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The Bush administration has been close-mouthed about the state's request.
Through Oct. 8, Road Home had paid out grants averaging $69,887 to about 60,000 applicants. However, nearly 185,000 had sought financing by the July 30 deadline.
f the war spending bill gets delayed, Congress could attach Louisiana's request to any number of routine government spending bills that are still pending in Congress and expected to pass by year's end. If Congress isn't willing to allocate the full amount, Louisiana officials estimate that $2 billion in "bridge financing" would probably be enough to carry the Road Home program through March.
"The challenge is the timing of the funding and what (legislative) instrument they will use," Nagin said.
Seeking a united front
Blanco and Nagin stressed the need for presenting a united front as Louisiana makes its pitch for more money to Congress. But, there were signs of tension Tuesday in the delegation.
Shortly after a morning meeting with Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, the second-term congressman urged Blanco to give Congress "an honest and fair assessment" of the needs of the state. Boustany also noted that this was the first time Blanco had met privately with him since the 2005 hurricanes.
"We need to make this a team effort," Boustany said in a brief interview.
Boustany said Blanco must figure out precisely how much the state needs. With applications still being processed, Blanco estimated Tuesday that it will be between $3.3 billion and "no more than $3.7 billion" and Nagin said it would be between $3.2 billion and $3.9 billion.
"It's getting harder and harder to get members to coalesce around something like this. They need to come up with a figure and make a case for how they derived that figure," Boustany said.
Blanco said she was surprised at the criticism. "We had a very positive meeting with him," Blanco said.
There has been some bad blood between the two since Blanco pointedly criticized Boustany several weeks ago for his vote against a $35 billion expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Boustany said he supports more money for SCHIP but wants regulations tightened so that it only covers children, not adults.