Powell to lead US delegation to Asian tsunami region
* Congress members drafting new tsunami aid package
CRAWFORD: President George W Bush, criticised for his slow reaction to the Asian tsunami disaster, said on Thursday he would send a delegation led by Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region on Sunday to assess the need for US assistance.
The delegation, which will include the president’s brother, Florida Gov Jeb Bush, was due to meet regional leaders and international organizations working to bring relief to an estimated 5 million tsunami survivors in southeastern and central Asia.
But there was no word about increasing the $35 million of assistance that Bush announced this week, despite pressure from critics that he could allot more money to victims and repair America’s image, tarnished by the Iraq war.
Members of Congress were already drafting a new tsunami aid package for early next year amid Republican assurances of a generous appropriation. The size of the package has not yet been agreed.
“The challenges of coping with suffering on this magnitude are almost unfathomable, and we will act,” said Republican Rep. Henry Hyde, who chairs the House International Relations Committee.
But administration critics stepped up their attacks on Bush, saying he has been slow to respond to the tragedy that has killed at least 125,000 people.
“Congress could act very very quickly, but it also helps if the president wants to act very quickly,” Sen Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said in a CNN interview. “He has the authority right now, on his own, to move about $300 million - $50 million a country - for those that are effected. He could do that today.” Congress approved $40 billion in spending within three days of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed 3,000 people. Lawmakers also responded fast with $13.6 billion for states hit by hurricanes in the run-up to last month’s US elections.
White House budget office spokesman Chad Kolton said budget officials were working to assess what funds could be freed up without legislative action.
“We are scaling up our effort, and we will do what is necessary to show that the United States will be a leader in this effort,” Powell told the ABC current affairs program “Nightline.” “What we have to do is make a needs assessment and not just grasp at numbers or think we’re in some kind of an auction house where every day somebody has to top someone else.”
United Nations officials played down suggestions that an aid coalition announced by Bush might compete with the United Nations, which traditionally coordinates the global response to major disasters. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan held a videoconference with envoys from four nations - Australia, India, Japan and the United States - with Powell representing Washington.
Powell will meet with Annan at the United Nations on Friday, the State Department said. Bush emphasized the scope of US assistance already under way and pledged to do “everything possible” to provide relief in partnership with the international community. Ten US cargo planes with supplies have arrived at a regional base hub in Thailand, while the USS Lincoln and its carrier group were due off the west coast of Sumatra on Friday to take up relief efforts, a Pentagon spokesman said. reuters