Some GOP Legislators Hit Jarring Notes in Addressing Katrina

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 10, 2005; A04

Some lawmakers are still struggling to find the sympathetic but diligent tone that a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina -- and the lagging government response to its victims -- would seem to call for.

The latest elected official to step into the swamp was Rep. Richard H. Baker, a 10-term Republican from Baton Rouge. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that he was overheard telling lobbyists: "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did."

Democrats, of course, gleefully disseminated the report, saying they detected a GOP pattern. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) recently spoke of bulldozing part of New Orleans, they reminded everyone, and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) suggested punishing people who had ignored pre-storm evacuation orders.

Baker issued a lengthy statement saying he was "taken aback" by the Journal's brief item. "What I remember expressing, in a private conversation with a housing advocate and member of my staff, was that 'We have been trying for decades to clean up New Orleans public housing to provide decent housing for residents, and now it looks like God is finally making us do it,' " Baker wrote. "Obviously I have never expressed anything but the deepest concern about the suffering that this terrible catastrophe has caused for so many in our state."

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, Santorum was drawing a second round of fire, this time for saying the National Weather Service's forecasts and warnings about Katrina's path were "not sufficient." Democrats e-mailed audio links to a radio interview in which Santorum said that "we need a robust National Weather Service" that focuses on severe weather predictions. "Obviously the consequences are incredibly severe, as we've seen here in the last couple of weeks, if we don't get it right and don't properly prepare," Santorum said.

In fact, many people think the Weather Service got the Katrina prediction exactly right. They include GOP Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), who chairs the Senate Commerce subcommittee on disaster prediction and prevention. He issued a statement headlined "DeMint Gives National Weather Service 'A' Grade for Katrina Prediction."

Santorum, long at odds with the federal agency, is pushing a bill that would require it to surrender some of its duties to private businesses, some of them located in his state. The National Weather Service Employees Organization said in a statement: "We did our job well and everyone knows it. By falsely claiming that we got it wrong, Rick Santorum is continuing his misguided crusade against the National Weather Service."

Santorum's office issued a statement yesterday repeating the concern that "there are serious consequences" when the Weather Service falls short of "getting it right."

These days it seems that no Republican remark is too small or ambiguous to trigger a Democratic mass mailing. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee yesterday sent links to a Houston Chronicle blogger who had watched House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) tour the Astrodome, where children evacuated from New Orleans were playing. The blog reported that DeLay "likened their stay to being at camp and asked, 'Now, tell me the truth, boys, is this kind of fun?' " The blogger said the youngsters "nodded yes, but looked perplexed."

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