A New Orleans television reporter asked John McCain at a June 4 town hall meeting in Louisiana why he had voted twice against the creation of a commission to investigate preparedness for Hurricane Katrina. McCain responded that he "supported every investigation and ways of finding out what caused the tragedy." That’s not true.
McCain did, as the reporter said, twice vote against legislation that would have created an independent commission, much like the 9/11 Commission, to investigate the government’s role in preparedness for and response to the hurricane. Here’s the exchange:
Reporter: Senator, Maya Rodriguez at the CBS station out of New Orleans. My understanding is you have voted twice against the creation of a commission to investigate the levee failures in New Orleans. And my question is, why have you voted against that?
McCain: I’ve supported every investigation and ways of finding out what caused the tragedy. I’ve been here to New Orleans. I’ve met with people on the ground. I’ve met with the governor. I’m not familiar with exactly what you said, but I’ve been as active as anybody in efforts to restore the city.
The reporter was referring to votes on an amendment offered by Sen. Hillary Clinton in 2005 and 2006 to set up an independent commission to look into the government’s actions regarding Katrina. The commission would have been made up of non-federal-government employees, appointed by the president and Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress. Republicans defeated both attempts, with yeas and nays cast completely along party lines.
Defending the White House
McCain lined up with his party at a time when the White House was being accused on all sides of withholding information from the Senate.
Before the second vote, on Feb. 2, 2006, Clinton charged: "We are seeing the administration withholding documents, testimony, and information from the ongoing investigations by the House and Senate."
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who co-chaired a Senate investigation into Katrina by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, argued against the measure, saying her committee "has been conducting a thoroughly comprehensive, bipartisan, and thorough investigation into the preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina." But about a week earlier Collins had been telling reporters that it was "completely inappropriate" for the White House to forbid government officials from talking to the committee and that "the White House has gone too far in restricting basic information about who called whom on what day."
The other co-chair of that Senate investigation, Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, more forcefully chastised the White House and other federal agencies for withholding documents, refusing interviews and derailing the Senate’s work.
Lieberman, Jan. 24, 2006: There has been a near-total lack of cooperation that has made it impossible, in my opinion, for us to do the thorough investigation we have a responsibility to do.
Lieberman voted for the creation of an independent commission, both times. He was later defeated for his party’s nomination in 2006 but won reelection to the Senate as an independent and is now backing McCain.
We don’t know whether an independent commission would have gotten more information from the Bush White House, and we take no position on whether creating such a commission was appropriate or needed. But McCain’s statement that he "supported every investigation" is false. The record shows McCain lined up with his party as it circled the wagons to defend the Bush administration against a more aggressive probe of what went wrong before and after Katrina.
Why Vote Against It?
McCain suggested that he was merely voting against wasteful spending. He told the Louisiana reporter that he voted against "one of the bills" because it was riddled with pork.
McCain: I also voted against one of the bills that came down that was loaded with pork barrel projects that had nothing to do with New Orleans too. It had billions for projects and programs that had nothing to do with the recovery of the city of New Orleans.
The Clinton amendments, however, would have provided $3 million for the investigation but no funds for anything else.
"Tired negative attacks"
McCain’s gaffe put his campaign on the defensive. A spokesman issued a statement accusing Sen. Barack Obama of "launching … tired negative attacks."
McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers: It doesn’t bode well for Senator Obama’s pledges to run a campaign of hope and change when on the first day of the general election he’s launching the same tired negative attacks that the American people are so sick and tired of.
That referred to an e-mail that the Obama campaign sent to reporters. It said: "Whether he simply wasn’t aware of his voting record again or he was intentionally misleading the people of Louisiana, John McCain certainly isn’t offering us ‘leadership you can believe in.’ " Other than that, the e-mail simply quoted McCain and gave the dates and Senate numbers of the votes.
The McCain campaign also said that in his response to the reporter he was "speaking to his strong support" for the Homeland Security Committee probe:
McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers (continuing): As Sen. McCain said, he wasn’t familiar with the specific votes the questioner was asking about. Instead he was speaking to his strong support for the Homeland Security Committee’s comprehensive, bipartisan investigation of Hurricane Katrina, which was already fully underway when these other proposals were suggested.
It’s true that McCain did tell the reporter that he wasn’t "familiar with exactly what you said." However, his response to the reporter made no specific mention of the Senate investigation. Furthermore, the Senate investigation was not "fully underway" when the idea of an independent commission was suggested. The first vote on Sept. 14, 2005, was held the same day the committee opened its first hearing.
-by Lori Robertson
U.S. Senate Roll Call Votes 109th Congress – 2nd Session. S.Amdt. 2716 to S.Amdt. 2707 to H.R. 4297, Feb. 2006. Senate.gov, accessed 5 June 2008.
S.Amdt. 2716. Thomas.gov, Feb. 2006, accessed 5 June 2008.
Congressional Record – Senate. 2 Feb. 2006, S492. 5 June 2008.
MSNBC. "Hardball with Chris Matthews," 25 Jan. 2006.
Jordan, Lara Jakes. "White House slowing Katrina inquiry, senators say." Associated Press, 25 Jan. 2006.
Rosenbaum, David E. and Carl Hulse. "Senate Panel Discusses Need for Central Authority in Recovery." The New York Times. 15 Sept. 2005.
"Senate kills bid for Katrina commission." Associated Press, 14 Sept. 2005.