A "Big Victory" -- that's how the Sun-Herald of Southern Mississippi (Biloxi) describes today's news that the House and Senate voted at 4 a.m. this morning to approve $29 billion in spending for hurricane relief.
The amount is definitely an improvement for residents in Gulf states, who just last week were raging at President Bush's proposal to spend a miserly $3 billion for hurricane relief and rebuilding.
The bill's biggest provision includes $11.5 billion in "block grants" to Mississippi and Louisiana, which they can use however they need to. There's also $2.75 billion for road and bridge repair, $2.89 billion for levee projects around New Orleans and studies on better protecting Gulf communities; and $1.6 billion for the Department of Education to help damaged schools and those serving evacuees.
But not everyone is so enthusiastic. There's a lot of money for big projects and contracting, but not much to directly help hurricane survivors -- many who still face eviction. For example, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that one of the key items cut from the package was spending to help buy out homeowners in New Orleans:
[A] bill backed by Louisiana officials to allow residents who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina to recover a portion of their equity ran into Senate opposition and now likely won't be taken up until next year.
Most disturbing of all, though, is that -- in an obscene move -- Congressional leaders have made help for the Gulf Coast hinge entirely on approval of drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR.
The Katrina relief package was added to the "must-pass" $453 billion defense budget. This means that for the Gulf states to get the aid, not only must Congress approve all the dubious war spending included there -- it must also approve ANWR, which has also been attached to the military spending bill.
To make matters worse, the bill also makes billions of the Gulf relief money direcctly dependent on revenues from oil drilling in Alaska. As the Times-Picayune reports,
The $29 billion hurricane assistance bill, which passed at 4 a.m. New Orleans time by 308-106, would, among other things, give Louisiana $2 billion as its share of bidding revenue and $4 billion over 30 years as the state's share of drilling royalty revenue -- all associated with the proposed exploration of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR. Another $1 billion would be produced from giving Louisiana a share of future digital spectrum bidding proceeds.
Critics said the proposal, which also provides a financing source for heating and air-conditioning assistance for low-income households and for homeland security, was an attempt to buy support for the controversial drilling provisions long opposed by environmentalists.
In other words, it's a trap, forcing those who oppose Arctic drilling to also position themselves against providing Gulf aid. Some Democrats have already pledged to fillibuster, a move which Republicans know will cause the party to be villified in Southern Gulf states.
But Louisiana Senators David Vitter (R) and Mary Landrieu (D) are spinning the whole saga as a major victory, even suggesting that Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens -- the biggest supporter of drilling in the Refuge -- is offering to share the project's revenue out of the kindness of his heart:
Both Vitter and Landrieu credited Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, with adding the revenue-sharing provisions to his ANWR proposal.
"Sen. Stevens brought this idea to fruition after seeing the devastation along our coast firsthand and tonight gives us renewed hope for comprehensive protection for all the parishes through south Louisiana," Landrieu said.
I can see Vitter, a long-time advocate for ANWR drilling, saying this. But Landrieu?