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Can Congress Dish Out Relief Without Pork?

On Aug. 28, while Hurricane Katrina was devastating the Gulf Coast, Max Baucus of Montana, the senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, was driving across Nevada. The panel's Republican chairman, Chuck Grassley, was back home in Iowa. Baucus reached out to Grassley by cell phone, and the two collegial lawmakers hashed out a package of tax breaks for hurricane victims.

Such collegiality is rare in an era of nasty partisanship. What's just as impressive is that in the immediate aftermath of the storm, Congress passed $62.3 billion in emergency spending and is moving ahead with immediate tax relief for Katrina's victims without larding the legislation with unrelated goodies. But Washington's pork-barrel proclivities will be hard to restrain when lawmakers consider the second stage of aid contemplated by Grassley and Baucus -- more tax breaks to bolster rebuilding along the Gulf Coast, as well as an additional $50 billion in new emergency spending. "Instead of ambulance-chasing lawyers, we have pork-chasing lawmakers," says Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a conservative watchdog group. "They want to tie any project to the latest disaster."

Temptation beckons

That hasn't happened -- yet. Democrats and Republicans want to send a message to Katrina's victims: We care. So Congress is hustling to wrap up a quick spending bill -- without the pork that has weighed down other emergency measures, such as Iraq war funding.

Grassley and Baucus envisioned a two-stage plan: immediate help and long-term reconstruction. First, they'd provide about $5 billion in short-term aid for those left homeless and jobless by Katrina. Hurricane victims could tap into their retirement plans and employers in the disaster zone would get incentives to keep workers on the payroll.

But fiscal conservatives are increasingly worried about Phase II. That's when lawmakers and lobbyists will be tempted to insert their own tax breaks. A second bill could give companies in the storm-ravaged region generous depreciation write-offs for the purchase of new buildings and equipment, create tax-advantaged enterprise zones in the Gulf states, and expand tax-exempt treatment for bonds to finance private construction projects. But pols are already pushing to expand those tax breaks -- in the name of boosting the national economy. Several key Republicans, including House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), are racing to promote post-Katrina stimulus. Such a bill could be loaded with unrelated tax goodies such as broad new investment incentives and breaks for building oil refineries that go beyond those in recently enacted energy legislation. Even Baucus won't rule out such changes. Among those looking for cash from a second spending bill are Midwestern farmers and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who wants help to shore up levees in California.

That may be a reason why James R. Horney, a senior budget analyst at the liberal Center on Budget & Policy Priorities, frets that a second bill "really scares me. There is a real fear that we'll end up with changes that have nothing to do with Katrina."

For now, most lawmakers still recognize that restraint is called for as the nation confronts a disaster of historic proportions. But this is Washington, where disaster is often a chance to hand out free money.

Hurricane Katrina has the gun lobby up in arms. The National Rifle Assn. says it has logged thousands of calls from firearms owners furious at reports that law enforcement officials seized guns from citizens trying to protect themselves from looters. The NRA also is looking into reports that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives has been using gun shop records to track down New Orleans gun owners.

The NRA is seeking a repeal of state laws, including those in Louisiana, that give the government broad leeway in regulating guns during a state of emergency. It also is demanding a congressional investigation into possible violations of civil liberties after the storm and a review of federal disaster laws. "When you have a total breakdown of law and order...that's exactly what the Second Amendment was designed for," says NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre Jr. "We're at the point where all people have to save their life and property is their firearm. They can't call 911."

Given the NRA's clout on the Hill, hearings will likely happen. It's harder to handicap the showdown at state capitals between law enforcement and the gun lobby. Meantime, gun sales are soaring, and the NRA is offering legal aid to gun owners who believe their constitutional rights have been violated.

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