Jindal trying to save Katrina aid in war bill cuts

Published 3:50 pm Wednesday, June 18, 2008

As Congress moves to cut $73 million in housing aid for disabled Hurricane Katrina victims from the same bill that provides $350 million to help Iraqi refugees, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has joined efforts to salvage the Katrina measure.

House Democratic leaders could ax the Katrina funds as early as Wednesday, cutting a relatively small part of the massive $212 billion war supplemental President Bush has threatened to veto if it does not shed about $35 billion in domestic add-ons.

Jindal, a rising Republican figure who many observers consider a possible vice-presidential candidate for John McCain, has sent letters and made phone calls urging the housing aid and other Katrina-related provisions be saved.

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Among them was a call to Marine Major Gen. Doug O’Dell, Bush’s recently appointed coordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding, Jindal spokeswoman Melissa Sellers said in an e-mail.

“The governor has spoken to Gen. O’Dell, other senior members of the administration, and members of Congress on the importance of levee funding, housing vouchers and other vital needs in the supplemental many times, including some recent conversations this week,” Sellers said.

Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said “the committee is still working on the supplemental and until that is finalized, we cannot comment on specific provisions.”

White House budget office spokeswoman Corinne Hirsch said the president would make no commitments to individual expenditures in the bill.

“We will reserve comment until we’ve had an opportunity to review the bill they will bring to the floor,” Hirsch said in an e-mail. “However, the president has been clear he wants a bill that meets the needs of our troops, gives military commanders the flexibility they require and does not exceed his requested level of spending.”

Homeless advocate groups are becoming increasingly desperate to save the funds, which would provide about 3,000 housing assistance vouchers to mentally and physically disabled Katrina victims; nonprofits say they are the neediest segment of New Orleans’ swelling homeless population.

The August 2005 disaster that submerged 80 percent of the city and killed more than 1,600 people also led to a doubling of the homeless population to 12,000, according to assistance groups.

“Disabled Katrina victims shouldn’t be the victims of a political blame game between the parties,” said Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a group that has counted New Orleans’ homeless. “Both the House leadership and the President need to step up to the plate on behalf of the most vulnerable people here.”

Joining Jindal in support of the vouchers are U.S. senators from Louisiana who are frequently at odds, Republican David Vitter and Democrat Mary Landrieu. The lawmakers expressed sympathy for the plight of Iraqi refugees and did not want that funding jeopardized, but said the ongoing need for Katrina aid should not be overlooked.

“Nearly three years since the storms, permanent supportive housing vouchers are needed more than ever to help get our most vulnerable population — the elderly and disabled — into safe, affordable homes,” Landrieu said.

For 11 months, many of the city’s homeless have clustered in tent shanties that first sprung up in a grassy City Hall Plaza. That area was ringed with a construction fence in late December. However, the demolition of a state office building that was the city’s stated reason for the action has not taken place five months later.

The camp has since migrated to an exhaust-choked stretch of Interstate 10, about midway between the tourists destinations of the French Quarter and Louisiana Superdome. Kegel said her group has taken the names of some 500 different people who have passed through the camp, about 85 percent of them found to be native New Orleans residents displaced by Katrina.