Two Unanswered Questions

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, September 19, 2005; 11:51 AM

Two pretty basic questions are throwing President Bush and his top aides for a loop as they push their ambitious reconstruction plan for the Gulf Coast:

1) What will it cost?

2) Who is going to pay for it?

For a White House that normally has a smooth comeback at the ready for even the most caustic queries, the response to these two straightforward questions has been notably fumbling.

Bush, who has not held a regular press conference in more than three and a half months, made a brief public appearance with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday. That gave Associated Press reporter Terence Hunt the chance to ask the obvious:

Who will pay?

Bush wouldn't say.

"[Y]ou bet, it's going to cost money," he said. "But I'm confident we can handle it and I'm confident we can handle our other priorities. It's going to mean that we're going to have to make sure we cut unnecessary spending. It's going to mean we don't do -- we've got to maintain economic growth, and therefore we should not raise taxes."

And what will it cost?

"Well, it's going to cost whatever it costs."

Earlier Friday morning, press secretary Scott McClellan made chief domestic policy adviser Claude Allen and chief economic adviser Al Hubbard available for reporters' questions. Here's the transcript. Here's a heavily boiled down version:

"Q Al, where's the money coming from for this?

"DIRECTOR HUBBARD: Where's the money coming from? It's coming from the American taxpayer.

"Q Right, but you're already spending more than you take in, so how much more is there to --

"DIRECTOR HUBBARD: Well, if you want to know the --

"Q Are we going to have to borrow it, or are you going to raise taxes? I mean, if it's coming from the taxpayer that suggests maybe you're going to have to raise taxes.

"DIRECTOR HUBBARD: . . . [T]he last thing in the world we need to do is raise taxes and retard economic growth.

"Q So where does the money come from? Obviously, you've got to borrow it or [make] offsets in the budget, what?

"DIRECTOR HUBBARD: Well, again, the money is going to come from the federal government, it's going to come from the federal taxpayer. . . .

"Q Allan, can I just clear this up? So the money will be borrowed, so it will add to the deficit, right?

"DIRECTOR HUBBARD: Well, there's no question that this -- the recovery will be paid for by the federal taxpayer and it will add to the deficit. That's right. . . .

"Q Claude, do you -- can you name any specific programs that will be cut or eliminated already in order to make room without adding too much to the deficit in order to pay for Katrina relief?

"MR. ALLEN: No, I cannot name any programs that will be cut. In fact, we did not focus on that."

The Coverage

Michael A. Fletcher and Jonathan Weisman write in Saturday's Washington Post: "Amid growing concern among congressional Republicans about the huge cost of the planned reconstruction effort, Bush said the federal government can foot the bill without resorting to a tax increase. 'You bet it's going to cost money. But I'm confident we can handle it,' Bush said. 'It's going to mean that we're going to have to cut unnecessary spending.'. . . .

"Bush pledged to find some spending cuts. But he offered no specifics, and his chief economic aide, Allan B. Hubbard, dismissed the rebuilding effort's impact on the longer-term effort to reduce the budget deficit. 'This in no way will adversely impact his commitment to cut the deficit in half by 2009,' he said."

Richard Wolf and Judy Keen write in USA Today that "the economic and political questions raised by Katrina's price tag are complex. The recovery effort is likely to increase the federal budget deficit, intensify pressure on Bush to raise taxes and delay some of his priorities, such as overhauling Social Security. It also is exposing the extent to which the budget already has been squeezed to pay for the Iraq war and calls into question Bush's commitment to the Republican tenet of small government."

William Neikirk writes in the Chicago Tribune that the "massive reconstruction plan, complete with tax incentives to help businesses reinvest in the devastated city, will drive the federal budget deficit higher in the next several years, putting the treasury in a more perilous condition just as the first Baby Boomers reach retirement age in 2008. . . .

"The billions in new dollars that Bush plans to spend over the next few years most likely will have to be borrowed overseas from such countries as Japan and China."

Warren Vieth and Richard Simon write in the Los Angeles Times: "The president's reconstruction proposal -- expected to cost roughly twice as much as the post-World War II Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe -- intensified the anxiety of fiscal conservatives who already deplored the rapid increase in deficit spending under Bush.

" 'Among advocates of limited government, there is despair,' said David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. 'This is the biggest-spending president since Lyndon Johnson. And if he spends the kind of money that's being talked about here, I don't know if there will ever have been a president who increased spending as fast as this one did.' "

Howard Fineman writes in Newsweek: "Beyond the illuminated confines of Jackson Square, there were those who thought Bush was lurching forward, like a free-spending conventioneer maxing out his credit card as he roamed the Quarter."

Daniel Eisenberg writes in Time magazine: " 'It's going to cost whatever it costs,' is how the President put it last week. Given the battering his reputation has taken in the past few weeks, that open-ended approach makes perfect sense. After all, no matter what it ends up costing, the White House has learned that the price of inaction is much, much higher."

Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "President Bush didn't say the other night how he would pay for his promise to rebuild the Gulf Coast states. Allow us to explain: Every penny of aid approved by Congress so far and all subsequent aid - perhaps as much as $200 billion - will be borrowed, with most of it likely to come from Asian central banks and other foreign investors. That means additional interest of about $10 billion a year indefinitely. The bill will hit current and future taxpayers in the form of higher taxes or cuts in government programs, or both."

Fareed Zakaria writes in Newsweek: "Whatever his other accomplishments, Bush will go down in history as the most fiscally irresponsible chief executive in American history."

Sebastian Mallaby writes in The Washington Post: "It's hard to say what's worse: The incompetence of the administration's initial hurricane response or the cowardice of its follow-up. Faced with a small hit to his ratings, the president who once boasted of ignoring polls is rushing to spend billions of other people's dollars on saving his political skin. His philosophy is, 'It's going to cost whatever it costs.' That phrase should be the title of some future history of the Bush era."

Ideology Watch

Nick Anderson writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration yesterday proposed nearly $500 million in federal funding to help displaced private school students from the Gulf Coast enroll in private schools elsewhere in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"The proposal, fleshing out a goal President Bush had announced in a speech to the nation Thursday night, would amount to the largest federal school voucher program ever, if enacted."

Neil Irwin writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's proposal to create 'worker recovery accounts' to help those left jobless by Hurricane Katrina is based on a controversial approach to helping the unemployed that his administration pushed two years ago with little success."

When Bush first proposed such accounts in 2003, officials "characterized the plan as a way to help the unemployed take control of their efforts to return to work, granting them $3,000 for things such as community college classes and taxi rides for job interviews. Those who found a job would be rewarded with the money remaining in their accounts, in effect a bonus for gaining work.

"But many liberals worried that the accounts would eventually replace unemployment insurance and other long-standing parts of the social safety net. And many conservatives didn't care for the idea of creating a large new government program."

The African-American Question

Elisabeth Bumiller and Anne E. Kornblut write in the New York Times: "Hurricane Katrina has forced President Bush to confront the issues of race and poverty in a way that has shaken his presidency and altered his priorities, African-American leaders of both parties said this week. . . .

"At the very least, black leaders said, Hurricane Katrina set back the long-term plans of Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, and Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, to bring more blacks, a longtime Democratic constituency, into the Republican fold."

Bumiller also writes in the Times about T. D. Jakes, a black television evangelist who Bush has called to his side twice since the hurricane struck.

But the sermon he delivered before Bush's speech at the National Cathedral on Friday was pointed: "It is not so important what we say, it is important what we do," Jakes said. "Defining moments of history cannot be defined by rhetoric and words or anger, or soliciting people to respond in a tempestuous way. But real leadership is defined by what we do."

The Clinton Critique

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "Former President Bill Clinton, asked by President Bush to help raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, offered harsh criticism of the administration's disaster-relief effort on Sunday, saying 'you can't have an emergency plan that works if it only affects middle-class people up.'

"Mr. Clinton's comments in an interview on the ABC News program 'This Week' could prove awkward for the White House, given President Bush's eagerness to involve his Democratic predecessor in a high-profile role to raise money for the hurricane's victims. . . .

"The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, did not respond directly to Mr. Clinton's remarks about the hurricane-relief effort or mention the former president by name. But in a statement on Sunday, Mr. McClellan suggested it was unfair to link the plight of low-income victims of the hurricane to the economic policies of the Bush administration."

Clinton also criticized Bush for his strategy in Iraq.

Here is the transcript of Clinton's appearance.

Cheney Watch, Part I

Mike Allen writes in Time magazine: "As key Senators in both parties push President Bush to name a 'hurricane czar' to take charge of the Katrina aftermath, some Administration officials relish the notion of outsourcing their Category 5 headache. But the idea of a superpowerful hurricane guy hit a major obstacle: Vice President Dick Cheney, who -- eight days after Katrina made landfall -- was put in charge of assessing whether the Administration was meeting its goals in the relief effort.

"G.O.P. officials say Cheney opposed a czar largely out of his affection for standard operating procedure. But a presidential adviser tells Time that Cheney was also concerned that the new office would invite more meddling by Congress and create another power center. 'If you appoint a czar and he doesn't get what he wants, like if you start to tamp down the spending, all he has to do is go to the press and create sympathy for his viewpoint and make it difficult for the President,' the adviser says. Bush and his inner circle agreed, with little debate, top aides said."

Cheney Watch, Part II

Rob Stein writes in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney will undergo elective surgery to treat a blood vessel problem behind his right knee, the White House announced yesterday.

"The elective procedure, which will probably take place next weekend at George Washington University Hospital, will treat an aneurysm in an artery that was discovered earlier this year during a routine checkup, spokesman Steve Schmidt said."

Poll Watch

Raymond Hernandez and Megan Thee write in the New York Times: "With Hurricane Katrina already costing the federal government tens of billions of dollars, more than 8 in 10 Americans are very or somewhat concerned that the $5 billion being spent each month on the war in Iraq is draining away money that could be used in the United States, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. . . .

"When asked how long American troops should remain in Iraq, for example, 52 percent of people interviewed called for an immediate withdrawal, even if that means abandoning President Bush's goal of restoring stability to that country."

Here are the complete results.

On Friday, I overlooked the latest Fox News poll, which shows Bush with an all-time low job approval rating of 41 percent, with 51 percent disapproving.

Kenneth T. Walsh, Paul Bedard and Thomas Omestad write in U.S. News: "White House aides say that they aren't expecting big changes in Bush's poll numbers soon. Indeed, one former GOP White House official called [Thursday's prime-time] speech a 'tourniquet.'

"Meanwhile, informal advisers to the White House fret that President Bush and his inner circle are too isolated -- he gets his information from just a handful of trusted advisers. 'There's no one with the nerve to tell the president when things are not going well,' says a GOP strategist who formerly worked in the administration. 'You saw that on Social Security, and you saw it in dealing with Katrina.' "

To the Victors

Christopher Lee writes in The Washington Post that political patronage "is an artifact of the 'spoils system' that President Andrew Jackson brought into office in the 1830s, in which government jobs were doled out as rewards for partisan loyalists, regardless of whether they were qualified. . . .

"The practice is especially common in the naming of U.S. ambassadors, many of whom earned their posts on the strength of their fundraising prowess. What may be different now, one veteran diplomat said, is that President Bush is putting these people in some key countries, such as Germany and Japan, instead of smaller European and Caribbean postings. . . .

"Favored but under-credentialed appointees often are dispatched to 'turkey farms,' select corners of federal agencies where it is presumed they can do little harm, said political scientist Donald F. Kettl of the University of Pennsylvania. It does not always work out that way, as Brown's stint at FEMA illustrates."

Supreme Court Watch

David Espo writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is in the early phases of consultations with Congress on filling a second vacancy on the Supreme Court, officials disclosed Friday, as Judge John Roberts coasts to Senate confirmation as chief justice.

"White House counsel Harriett Miers has called selected members of the Senate within the past day or two to solicit their views on replacements for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, these officials said.

"At the same time, Bush has invited four key senators to a breakfast meeting at the White House next Wednesday to discuss filling O'Connor's seat."

The Calendar

Bush held a Homeland Security Council meeting this morning. He also meets today with the prime minister of Thailand. On Tuesday, Bush travels to Lousiana and Mississippi again, for his fifth visit since the hurricane. No details yet.

On Wednesday, Bush meets with his Commission to Strengthen Social Security. On Thursday, he gives a speech on terrorism in Washington and meets with King Abdullah of Jordan. On Friday, he presents the Medal of Honor to Tibor Rubin, a Holocaust survivor who enlisted in the U.S. Army and fought in the Korean War. Then he attends the 2005 National Book Festival Gala.

The first lady is in Texas today. Among her events: A meeting at the Houston Home Depot with recently employed workers who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Judith Miller Watch

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post about New York Times reporter Judith Miller: "A parade of prominent government and media officials, 99 in all, visited Miller between early July, when she was jailed for refusing to be questioned by a federal prosecutor, and Labor Day, according to a document obtained by The Washington Post."

Karl Rove Watch, Part I

Sarah Baxter and Jacqui Goddard write in the Sunday Times of London that Karl Rove's brief hospitalization for painful kidney stones came at a bad time: "the middle of the biggest crisis so far of President George W Bush's second term.

"Once his condition improved it was Rove who urged the president to open his chequebook for the stricken city, against the advice of White House economists, and spend $200 billion (£111 billion) to rebuild it 'higher and better', as Bush went on to promise.

"Although many Republicans are horrified by the cost, Rove is determined to revive Bush's dormant image as a compassionate conservative, the theme of his first presidential campaign in 2000, and will be overseeing the reconstruction effort.

"Bill Kristol, editor of the neo-conservative Weekly Standard, said Rove's absence had made a significant difference after the hurricane hit. 'He was out of commission for 24-36 hours and he's indispensable. It's a thin White House and it's not a good thing that the government could become paralysed for a day,' Kristol said."

Karl Rove Watch, Part II

Wayne Slater writes in the Dallas Morning News: "White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove personally called the Texas secretary of state about a newspaper story quoting a staff lawyer about whether Mr. Rove was eligible to vote in the state.

"The lawyer was subsequently fired.

"Secretary of State Roger Williams said that he decided to dismiss the lawyer after talking with Mr. Rove but that the White House adviser didn't request that he do so.

"'Absolutely not,' said Mr. Williams, a longtime supporter of President Bush and a major GOP fundraiser."

Karl Rove Watch, Part III

The Huffington Post blog claims to know what Rove told businessman Teddy Forstmann's annual off the record gathering in Colorado this weekend:

"On Katrina: The only mistake we made with Katrina was not overriding the local government. . . .

"On The Anti-War Movement: Cindy Sheehan is a clown. There is no real anti-war movement. No serious politician, with anything to do with anything, would show his face at an anti-war rally. . . .

"On Bush's Low Poll Numbers: We have not been good at explaining the success in Iraq. Polls go up and down and don't mean anything. . . .

"On Iraq: There has been a big difference in the region. Iraq will transform the Middle East. . . .

"On Judy Miller And Plamegate: Judy Miller is in jail for reasons I don't really understand. . . .

"On Joe Wilson: Joe Wilson and I attend the same church but Joe goes to the wacky mass."

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