WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate approved $51.8 billion in additional funding for Hurricane Katrina relief on Thursday, rushing the measure to President George W. Bush for his signature.
The Senate approved the legislation by a vote of 97-0 shortly after receiving it from the House of Representatives, which also passed it overwhelmingly.
It was the second time in a week that Congress has rushed through emergency funding for the victims of the hurricane that hit Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida at the end of August.
Congress has now approved $62.3 billion sought by Bush, who has warned that further requests will come. Some lawmakers have estimated a final price tag of $150 billion to $200 billion.
"If we were to fail to act, every relief that is going on right this very moment...will be without money when the sun rises tomorrow," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said on the Senate floor.
Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the senior Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, and three senior senators from both major political parties cautioned that a provision in the legislation could open the door to fraudulent spending of emergency aid.
The provision would allow federal workers with government-issued credit cards to buy up to $250,000 in goods or services in a single purchase, up from a $15,000 limit.
A government watchdog agency has found purchases of personal items like jewelry, stereo equipment and home supplies, charged to such credit cards in the past, the lawmakers said.
John Scofield, a spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, said the legislation would reduce delays in delivering aid and that federal auditors will review credit card purchases.
Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, whose home state of Alabama suffered in the hurricane, also feared misuse of funds and called for the appointment of a hurricane czar to oversee spending. "We have got to be careful this does not become a feeding frenzy," he warned.
'FAILURES OF LEADERSHIP'
Democrats supported the emergency aid but some accused the House Republican leadership of rushing it and blocking debate on an amendment to revamp the widely criticized Federal Emergency Management Agency, in charge of relief.
On the Senate floor Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, displayed a photograph of a smiling Bush holding a guitar in California one day after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
"It was one of the worst failures of leadership in our country," Lautenberg said of the administration's planning for the hurricane and its reaction in the next few days.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, came to the defense of the White House. Referring to the evacuees sheltered and the food, water and equipment delivered, DeLay said: "We ought to be proud of that. But what are we doing in Washington? We're pointing our fingers."
The bill sent to Bush also increases FEMA's borrowing authority for a national flood insurance program to $3.5 billion, from the previous $1.5 billion.
The disaster will add to already large budget deficits this year and next. Those deficits also are being fueled by the war in Iraq that has cost about $300 billion since 2003.
FEMA will receive nearly all of the funds approved on Thursday -- $50 billion -- while the Defense Department will get $1.4 billion for its rescue efforts. The Army Corps of Engineers will get $400 million to dredge navigation channels, repair pump stations and levees in New Orleans and repair other projects in Gulf states.
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