Sen. Joe Lieberman, the only Democrat to endorse President Bush’s new plan for Iraq, has quietly backed away from his pre-election demands that the White House turn over potentially embarrassing documents relating to its handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans.
Lieberman’s reversal underscores the new role that he is seeking to play in the Senate as the leading apostle of bipartisanship, especially on national-security issues. On Wednesday night, Bush conspicuously cited Lieberman’s advice as being the inspiration for creating a new “bipartisan working group” on Capitol Hill that he said will “help us come together across party lines to win the war on terror.”
But the decision by Lieberman, the new chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, to back away from the committee's Katrina probe is already dismaying public-interest groups and others who hoped the Democratic victory in November would lead to more aggressive investigations of one of the White House’s most spectacular foul-ups.
Last year, when he was running for re-election in Connecticut, Lieberman was a vocal critic of the administration’s handling of Katrina. He was especially dismayed by its failure to turn over key records that could have shed light on internal White House deliberations about the hurricane, including those involving President Bush.
Asserting that there were “too many important questions that cannot be answered,” Lieberman and other committee Democrats complained in a statement last year that the panel “did not receive information or documents showing what actually was going on in the White House.”
Among the missing material: the record of a videoconference in the White House Situation Room in which former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown said he warned senior officials about the dire situation in New Orleans, but was greeted with “deafening silence.” Also missing: records believed to include messages and conversations involving the president, Vice President Dick Cheney and their top aides during the days in late August and early September 2005 when the Katrina disaster was unfolding and thousands of city residents were flocking to overcrowded shelters and hanging onto rooftops awaiting rescue.
But now that he chairs the homeland panel—and is in a position to subpoena the records—Lieberman has decided not to pursue the material, according to Leslie Phillips, the senator’s chief committee spokeswoman. “The senator now intends to focus his attention on the future security of the American people and other matters and does not expect to revisit the White House’s role in Katrina,” she told NEWSWEEK.
Phillips said that Lieberman may still follow up on some matters related to Katrina contracting. But in listing the Connecticut senator’s top priorities for the panel, she cited other areas, such as reform of homeland-security agencies and legislation promoting tighter security at U.S. seaports. Asked whether Lieberman’s new stand might feed complaints that he has become too close to the White House, Phillips responded: “The senator is an independent Democrat and answers only to the people who elected him to office and to his own conscience.”
But in the view of White House critics, the Katrina fallout is far from over. They view the missing White House material, along with contracting foul-ups and abuses, as an important part of the story of the disaster that befell a major American city. “Katrina was perhaps the government's biggest failure ever,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a liberal watchdog group. “For the Congress not to be willing to stand up to the White House and demand to know who's accountable is a total abdication of their responsibility. How serious about oversight are they if they're not willing to flex their muscle over this one? Wasn't the election about holding the government accountable? Congress has the power for oversight, and the mandate. Does it have the will?”
Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Louisiana Democrat who participated in House investigations on Katrina last year, also said the Katrina disaster needs further inquiry and that he will continue to push for such a probe in the House. “It is still important to my constituents—many of whom lost everything, including their loved ones—that we learn from the mistakes so that they aren't repeated,” he said. “We deserve to know what happened."
In the House, both Democrats and the GOP majority on the Government Reform Committee last year also expressed frustration with White House refusals to turn over internal records related to Katrina. But as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi continues to keep committees on a tight leash, it is not at all clear that House leaders will be more assertive than Lieberman plans to be in the Senate. A congressional official familiar with the agenda of Rep. Henry Waxman, the House panel’s new chairman, said that trying to force the White House to surrender Katrina material was still a "possibility." But Waxman and his committee have not yet made any decisions on what the government-reform committee will investigate, other than that Waxman's first priorities were to probe "waste, fraud and abuse," according to a congressional aide who, like other sources, asked not to be identified talking about internal matters.
Still, Lieberman’s more accommodating position is likely get more attention, especially because of the Connecticut Democrat's increasingly close relationship with the White House. No sooner did President Bush finish his speech Wednesday night than Lieberman put out a statement applauding Bush for his “courageous course”—a notable comment, given the lukewarm response the president’s speech received from many leading Republicans.
The “bipartisan working group” on national-security issues that Bush cited in the speech was inspired by a proposal that Lieberman and Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins made late last year. The plan: to have top committee chairs and ranking members meet regularly with the White House, according to Marshall Whitman, the chief spokesman in Lieberman’s office. Whitman says Lieberman is trying to take on the role that Henry (Scoop) Jackson played in the 1960s and 1970s—a tough “national security” Senate Democrat who was willing to cross party lines to work closely with Republican presidents like Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. “That’s the tradition he is following,” Whitman said.