President pledges investigation

President Bush
and Congress pledged separate
investigations into the widely panned federal response to Hurricane
Katrina on Tuesday as Senate Democrats said the government's share
of relief and recovery may top $150 billion.

"Bureaucracy is not going to stand in the way of getting the job done for the people," Bush said after meeting at the White House with his Cabinet on storm recovery efforts.

"Governments at all levels failed," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said at the Capitol. She announced that the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee would hold hearings, adding, "It is difficult to understand the lack of preparedness and the ineffective initial response to a disaster that had been predicted for years, and for which specific, dire warnings had been given for days."

Stung by criticism, Bush called congressional leaders to the White House for a meeting, their first since the hurricane spread death and destruction on a fearsome scope along the Gulf Coast and left much of New Orleans under several feet of floodwaters.

Congress formally returned from a five-week summer break during the day, signaling that the hurricane would take top billing on the agenda in the coming weeks.

The response "needs to be first and foremost," said Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., although he, like Bush, also stressed the GOP goal of confirming John Roberts as the next chief justice by the time the Supreme Court convenes on Oct. 3.

Congress approved $10.5 billion as an initial downpayment for hurricane relief last week, and Senate Democrats were consulting among themselves in advance of the White House meeting.

One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was possible Democrats would request as much as $50 billion as a next installment.

"I believe that the recovery and relief operations will cost up to and could exceed $150 billion. FEMA alone will likely require $100 billion in additional funding," Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in a statement issued after he talked with relief officials and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. An aide to Reid, Rebecca Kirszner, added, "Our priorities right now are targeted assistance for health care, housing and education."

Apart from the investigation announced by Collins and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the Senate Energy Committee arranged hearings on gasoline prices. The hurricane disrupted oil production and distribution in the Gulf of Mexico, and gasoline prices that had already been rising spiked sharply last week in some areas of the country.

For his part, Bush told reporters he was sending Vice President Dick Cheney to the Gulf Coast region on Thursday to help determine whether the government is doing all that it can.

The president has traveled to the storm-affected region twice since late last week.

"What I intend to do is lead an investigation to find out what went right and what went wrong," Bush said. "We still live in an unsettled world. We want to make sure we can respond properly if there is a WMD (weapons of mass destruction) attack or another major storm."

But Bush said now is not the time to point fingers and he did not respond to calls for a commission to investigate the response.

"One of the things people want us to do here is play the blame game," he said. "We got to solve problems. There will be ample time to figure out what went right and what went wrong."

Bush was devoting most of his day to the recovery effort. After the Cabinet meeting, he was gathering with the congressional leaders, representatives of charitable organizations and with Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to talk about assistance for displaced students and closed schools.

McClellan said the president also was increasing what he described as a sizable personal contribution to the Red Cross and also was sending money to the Salvation Army.

Meanwhile, Bush objected to references to displaced Americans as "refugees."

"The people we're talking about are not refugees," he said. "They are Americans and they need the help and love and compassion of our fellow citizens." The president raised the subject during a meeting with service organizations that are helping with the relief effort.

In another development, the commander of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division said that its paratroopers plan to use small boats, including inflatable Zodiac craft, to launch a new search-and-rescue effort in flooded areas of central New Orleans.

In a telephone interview from his operations center at New Orleans International Airport, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV said his soldiers' top priority is finding, recovering and evacuating people who want to get out of the flooded city.

There has been heavy criticism of the government's response to the hurricane, and city and state officials. Bush did not respond directly when asked if anyone on his disaster response team should be replaced.

The president said that he and his Cabinet members were focused on planning in several areas of immediate need - restoring basic services to affected areas, draining the water from New Orleans, removing debris, assessing public health and safety threats and housing for those displaced by the storm. He said it was important to get people's Social Security checks delivered to them.

Earlier, McClellan rejected suggestions that the poor, and particularly blacks, had been abandoned when New Orleans was evacuated.

"I think most Americans dismiss that and know that there's just no basis for making such suggestions," McClellan said.