The Daily 750

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When All Hell -- strike that -- Breaks Loose

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

I blame it on the sugar.

Seems like the Senators consumed all the leftover candy brought in by their staffs Monday morning. By the time they got to the floor the leftover KitKats and Butterfingers were smudge-marks on their speaking notes, their blood sugars were diving, and a funk began to set in.

The minority leader, Harry Reid, stood at the podium to give the R’s hell about everything from Mother Nature to Father Time but managed only a heavy sigh about a long list of particulars with which he had lost patience: the war, prisoner abuse, hurricane Katrina, cronyism, corruption, no oversight. Contemplating the fate of his grandchildren in a world gone Republican was more than he could bear, so he invoked Rule 21 -- the Senate equivalent of an otherwise mild-mannered parent grabbing his snotty kid by the arm and dragging him straight from the table to his room without TV or dessert.

What followed was straight out of a Tennessee Williams play.

The majority leader, Bill Frist -- from Tennessee, imagine, and the kid who was supposed to be sitting quietly in his room contemplating his badness -- came out in a suppressed rage. Hijacked! A stunt. A pure stunt! An affront, I say. Deeply disappointing. Why, the lack of courtesy, the lack of respect. The lack of civility! Why, I nevah!

And then the Mississippian, Trent Lott, stepped out from the chorus: Without notice! Astounded. Not the way it’s been done! An affront to the man!

Enter the straight-talking Yankee, Jon Kyl from Pennsylvania: No agenda. No solutions. Purely political.

All that was missing was the smelling salts and the flutter of cardboard Jesus fans.

When the Fluffernutter settled it was back to regular business and darned if the first person to speak wasn’t named Blanche. Blanche Lincoln, impassioned youngish Blue Dog Democrat from Helena, Arkansas.

Ten dollars bets Senator Lincoln was raised in a Southern Baptist church led by a hellfire and brimstone preacher. In a voice combining Jesse Jackson and Loretta Lynn (think Sissy Spacek in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter pleading with Doo: “Dadgum it, Doo! You never ask me nothing! You just say, "Hey baby, here's the deal, take it or leave it." Well, it's drivin' me crazy, Doo!”), Lincoln not simply introduced, she besought an amendment to the FY 2006 budget that would add some eight or so billions of dollars to extend Medicaid to victims of Hurricane Katrina. Shaking her fists in front of her for emphasis, she told the story of a man and his two children who lived for three days on top of a floating refrigerator. “How many stories do we have to share before Congress will act . . . and take care of our sisters and brothers in the Gulf State region?” She invoked her beloved grandmother: “One of the things my grandmother used to tell me: when you feel bad and like you could do better, stop. Think of somebody who needs something and go do it for them.”

Max Baucus, from Montana, heralded the devastation as “nothing less than Biblical.”

Trent Lott, miffed for the second time in less than an hour, rose in opposition to the amendment but proclaimed there was “no question in my mind what our needs are in Missippi and Lewzyanna. I know firsthand how bad this sitchyashun is and ever time I go home it breaks mah heart. Fortunately the people are resilient and they don’t whine a lot -- like you, Miss Blanche.” Nah, he left that last part out, but I could tell he meant it.

He went on: “If a person’s got a slab, a mortgage and no job, we’re gonna help ‘em. It’s not just low-income. Hell -- strike that from the record -- this hurricane is a great equalizer. If you’re a rich retired doctor and you lost your home and your car and your boat and your dawg, you got nuttin’.” Well, there's those IRAs and CDs and that second home on a lake in Michigan, but still....

Mary Landrieu, from Lewzyanna, finally got it right: “It wasn’t just the storms,” she said, “it was the 17 levee breaks.” And then, realizing her political blunder, she recovered: “But this was not your regular hurricane. This was an unprecedented disaster.”

My heart strings vibrate, too, at the destruction in Lewzyanna and Missippi and Flurduh. But Katrina was a regular hurricane. Big and bad, but regular and not unprecedented. And until the powers that be enact laws that prohibit rebuilding in regular flood plains, that enforce strict building codes designed to withstand the regular assaults of nature, and that strengthen protective infrastructures, it’s all money down the clogged drain.

Americans and their congressional representatives just don’t go all warm and fuzzy and open their pocketbooks to maintain America’s infrastructure the same as they do to battle the forces of nature. But it’s well past time we did. How about a Gray Cross: an organization to raise funds for concrete and rocks to rebuild bridges, levees and roads, and to build homes and offfices that aren't so easily huffed and puffed and quaked into a pile. Wilma came on the tail of Katrina, and next year begins a whole new alphabet of storms.

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