Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's visit to Katrina-ravaged Louisiana Wednesday follows six months of bungling that threatens political catastrophe for the state's Republicans. He will boost his belated $4.2 billion plan finally to provide housing for people made homeless by the storm, but it may be too little, too late. The government's post-hurricane performance has been a mess, and Republicans get the blame.

Rep. Richard Baker, a 10-term conservative Republican congressman from Baton Rouge with a 91 percent pro-Bush voting record, sat down with me in his Capitol Hill office last week to talk politics frankly: "The backlash is unknowable, but it is a big concern. When we go from a Republican White House to a Republican Congress to a Republican Senate to a majority of Republicans in the state congressional delegation, we are viewed as in charge. We are being measured by this storm response and by what Republicans do to help poor people."

That bleak assessment turns on its head simplistic analysis following Katrina that predicted evacuation of Democratic-voting African-Americans to the far corners of the nation would turn Louisiana into a deep red Republican state. On the contrary, the performance of the last six months may return the state to Democratic blue. Quite apart from who was at fault for an inadequate immediate response to the storm, Republicans are blamed for what has happened since then.

Baker expressed "great frustration" to me about the $27 billion in federal funds actually spent (well below the widely mentioned $85 billion figure). He said he "abhorred" 12 percent administrative expenses incurred by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Of the $27 billion, nothing has been spent on housing. "We have thousands of acres of homes just standing in ruins, and the pace with which that cleanup is going is bitterly frustrating," Baker said.

In his frustration, Baker proposed a new federal entity (the Louisiana Recovery Corp.) to finance redevelopment of devastated areas. While Baker got it through the House Financial Services Committee by a 50 to 9 vote, the White House killed it on grounds it would impede local initiative. Prominent Louisianans then were ready to write off the Bush administration as hopeless. The first sign of flexibility was flashed Feb. 14 when the $4.2 billion package was unveiled.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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