Lawmakers at the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) 35th Annual Legislative Conference here Sept. 21-24 blasted a Republican plan to ram through $500 billion in budget cuts for programs like Medicaid and the Army Corps of Engineers to offset funds for hurricane reconstruction, mostly earmarked for well-connected corporations. Already, the Bush administration has announced that hurricane survivors will not be guaranteed health care under Medicaid. And FEMA has halted distribution of $2,000 vouchers for the evacuees who number as many as 1 million. They have also shelved a housing voucher benefit that provided urgently needed assistance to evacuees in previous disasters.

Standing in the corridor of the Washington Convention Center, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) told reporters, “The system has devalued human lives. Workers in New Orleans earn $19,000 a year. Yet Bush has suspended the prevailing wage law.”

Bush, he added, still plans to ram through tax cuts for the wealthy. “We’ve got a real challenge,” Cummings said. “You can’t stamp out poverty when you are cutting the very programs that lift people out of poverty.”

The CBC’s eight-point action program to rebuild the Gulf Coast stresses the right of nearly half a million New Orleans residents to return home, reuniting families separated by the hurricanes, and giving residents “first choice at reconstruction jobs and contracts.” But it calls for a freeze on all contracts “until civil rights provisions can be reinstated,” and demands the preservation of the Davis-Bacon prevailing wage law. It also calls for providing physical and mental health care, and protecting legal, economic and voting rights.

Asked about the proposed $500 billion in offsetting budget cuts, Cummings told the World, “We don’t need to pit people against each other. We’ll miss an opportunity if we don’t speak out now for a program that lifts people out of poverty.”

Louisiana’s Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, standing at Cummings’ side, nodded in agreement. “We will not allow it,” she said. “The Democrats will not permit the White House to use this tragedy to promote an agenda that does not help America as a whole. We’re going to have to come up with a way to pay for this that does not put the burden on the backs of the poor and the middle class.”

Landrieu called for $200 billion or more to reconstruct the Gulf region and denounced as “insulting” a Republican smear campaign that Louisiana authorities are “corrupt” and can’t be trusted with the money. “They didn’t say that when funds allocated to Iraq could not be accounted for,” she snapped.

Minutes later, Landrieu told a CBC workshop on the Iraq war’s impact at home that lack of manpower was a factor in the slow response to Hurricane Katrina because so many of the region’s National Guard soldiers are deployed in the Persian Gulf. “If you’re distracted to other places, you leave people behind,” Landrieu charged. “This is not about a ‘blame game’ but it is about holding people accountable.” She praised the generosity of millions in contributing over $1 billion for hurricane relief. “But,” she added, “there is no substitute for powerful, effective government and it’s not working. FEMA is not working.”

The workshop earlier welcomed as a hero Gold Star mother Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey died in Iraq. “I hold closest to my heart the Gold Star families whose sons and daughters have been murdered by the reckless policies of this administration,” she said. “I went down to New Orleans and I saw the harm that Bush’s policies have done to America. Katrina exposed that we are a less safe and less secure nation. Katrina exposed how deeply racist our nation still is. I went into a poor African American community called Algiers. They were starved out of their community. … They didn’t get any help from the federal government. Veterans for Peace was the first to arrive with help.”

Popular Detroit talk-show host Joe Madison moderated the workshop. The Iraq war and occupation, he charged, is now the fourth most expensive war ever waged by the U.S., surpassing the estimated $204 billion cost of World War I. He called for more “righteous indignation against the war. We don’t have enough of it.”

“Rep. Alcee Hastings has introduced a bill calling for an independent committee to investigate Katrina, similar to the 9/11 Commission,” Madison told the World. “Bush is opposed to a Katrina Commission as he was opposed to the 9/11 Commission. We’re facing a partisan whitewash of what happened in terms of the lack of response to this humanitarian disaster.”

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