King cake sweetens recovery talk in D.C.

By Bruce Alpert

WASHINGTON -- Louisiana lawmakers used the six-month anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall and Mardi Gras -- and the additional enticement of king cake -- to remind colleagues and the news media Tuesday of the unfinished recovery in south Louisiana.

At a Capitol news conference, in which hungry reporters were offered generous slices of king cake cut by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., the message from Democratic senators was the devastation of Hurricane Katrina hasn't been forgotten.

"We're here today not only to wish our friends and neighbors a happy Mardi Gras, but to let them know they are not on their own," said Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. "We are continuing to work together to provide the tools and resources needed to not only repair the levees to make them as strong as they should have been in the first place, but to repair the wetlands so that we can avoid the devastation from the inevitable storms that will come up the Gulf."

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said that the key is for Louisiana lawmakers not to allow Katrina victims to lose out as Congress, and the nation, turns its attention to the latest news story, or, as he called it, "the flavor of the week."

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said he arranged the delivery of king cakes to fellow senators, with a personal note thanking those who have already visited the Katrina devastation and urging those who haven't to do so soon. He said it's important, on the six-month Katrina anniversary, for Washington to take note not only of the progress that has been made, but the "continuing needs" as well.

Upcoming visit

Later this week, a delegation of House members, led by Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., are scheduled to visit Louisiana and Mississippi. Vitter said he thinks Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a possible 2008 presidential candidate as is Hillary Clinton, will visit soon.

The state's lawmakers seemed pleased with the almost nonstop coverage on cable news shows of the Fat Tuesday celebrations in New Orleans.

"Mardi Gras is being celebrated in Louisiana, but not in the traditional sense," said Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans. "It is now a respite from the difficult recovery in which we are engaged and a statement that our resiliency continues to shine through."

Landrieu said her top priorities are getting a supplemental spending bill through to strengthen levees, to finance repair and rebuilding of homes, to rebuild schools and health facilities and to give Louisiana a bigger share of offshore oil and gas royalty payments.

"We got schools to rebuild, a new health care system to rebuild, new housing and new communities to rebuild and it is going to take our bests efforts, our best thoughts about how to get this work done," Landrieu said. "Many people want to return and people today are celebrating the great spirit of this region, and I hope that great spirit of this region can be matched by great work."

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., said Congress has the responsibility "to do what is right to make sure the Gulf region can recover and can rebuild." But Lincoln said she's discouraged that only one-third of the doctors have returned to metro New Orleans since Katrina struck Aug. 29, and that only about 2,000 of 5,000 hospital beds are now available.

"Now, as a mother who was called to school yesterday with a sick child, working families cannot return, businesses will not have the work forces they need, communities will not rebuild if the health care needs of that region are not met," Lincoln said.

What's next

Interviewed during CNN's coverage of Mardi Gras festivities, Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-Kenner, made the case that the United States should respond as generously as it did to rebuilding lower Manhattan after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"Look, this is an important city for America," Jindal said of New Orleans. "Economically, 30 percent of the oil and gas. You know, the country's largest ports are down here. When you look at not only economically, culturally, historically at a city that contributes so much to America's cuisine, musical, history, culture, this is a very important city."

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the top Democrat on the Small Business Committee, said it's important that Congress find a way to make the Small Business Administration more responsive to Katrina victims.

"While it is positive to see the residents of Louisiana returning to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras, there is still more work to be done to help homeowners and business owners rebuild six months after Hurricane Katrina," Kerry said. "And for those still waiting for disaster loans, there's very little to celebrate. There are more than 65,000 homeowners and business owners throughout the Gulf Coast still waiting to receive their disaster loans, so they too can be part of the area's economic recovery."