Dayton Stands Alone Against Bush on Katrina Stonewall

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    Bob Geiger
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What's worse than being a Senate Democrat slogging through committee work in the minority party and trying to get the Republicans to actually perform the whole coequal-branch-of-government, oversight thing on the White House? How about if the ranking Democrat on your committee, your go-to guy, is Joe Lieberman?

That's been the Sisyphean task faced by Senator Mark Dayton (D-MN) as one of seven Democrats on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs -- there are nine GOP members -- trying to get some straight answers on how the Bush administration managed to screw up so badly leading up to and after Hurricane Katrina.

Dayton was the only dissenting vote as the Committee issued a report last week, Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Unprepared, which capped its seven-month investigation into the preparedness and response to the catastrophic storm that wiped out much of New Orleans and coastal Mississippi. The Minnesota Senator voted against approving the draft report because "…it is seriously incomplete without the information, documents and testimony denied by the White House."

After repeated attempts to get full cooperation and transparency out of the Bush White House, Lieberman formally asked Committee Chair Susan Collins (R-ME) on March 15, 2006 to subpoena witnesses and documents that had been withheld by the administration -- and Collins refused.

Dayton assailed the other members of the Committee for failing to uphold their oversight responsibilities by simply giving up after the White House’s flat-out refused to fully disclose how they handled key elements of response to the hurricane.

“I regret the spineless decision by the Committee not to subpoena the information, documents, and witnesses, which the White House has refused to provide,” said Dayton, in a statement after the May 2 vote.

"The administration's refusal to comply and cooperate with this investigation is deplorable," said Dayton, speaking of it again on the Senate floor this week. "This investigation is not complete without all of the information requested from the administration. Furthermore, the report's findings and conclusions can hardly be considered reliable if the White House has decided what information to provide and what information to withhold from the committee."

Dayton recounted Tuesday how, on January 12, 2006, Collins sent a letter to then White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card demanding greater cooperation and saying bluntly "this practice (of withholding information) must cease."

"We are willing to discuss claims of executive privilege asserted by the White House, either directly or through a Federal agency," continued the letter, which followed another letter that was ignored in October 2005. "But we will not stand for blanket instructions to refuse answering any questions concerning any communications with the EOP [Executive Office of the President]."

Collins then refused to back up that indignation with any action in the form of subpoenas.

"Thus, the committee failed the Senate's constitutional obligations to be an independent, coequal branch of Government from the executive," said Dayton. "It also failed the long-suffering victims of Hurricane Katrina, who deserve to know why their governments failed them, and all of the American people, who depend upon their elected representatives to protect their lives and their interests, without regard to partisan political considerations. That partisanship includes unjustified protection of an administration of the same political party, as much as undue criticism of one from another party."

Meanwhile, Collins dismissed Dayton's concerns, saying the committee had gotten everything it needed from the executive branch.

"As a result of the Committee's efforts, we have a clear window into the functioning role of the White House in the days before and after Hurricane Katrina made landfall," said Collins in a statement. "The Committee had ample evidence to draw conclusions on how to strengthen our nation's ability to prepare for and respond to future catastrophes."

At no point does Collins explaining why, if they had received everything they needed, she then sent such a strong letter to the White House demanding an end to the stonewalling.

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), while inexplicably not joining Dayton in his mission to stall the release of the report pending more information from the White House, had harsh words for the lack of cooperation received by the Committee.

"The Committee investigation was the best it could have been given White House intransigence, but what is required now is an independent, bipartisan Katrina Commission with subpoena power," said Lautenberg. "The government failed its citizens before, during and after this disaster. Let's not fail the American people again by denying them access to what the White House knew and when they knew it."

And then, of course, there's Lieberman, who slinked quietly away after conceding yet another fight to George W. Bush, saying that pushing any further for Bush’s cooperation now would only tie up the report and recommendations with hurricane season approaching.

“The moment had passed,” Lieberman said. “We did what we could.”

At least Mark Dayton can say that with a straight face.

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