President Bush's multi-billion dollar reconstruction plans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina are being used as "a vast laboratory" for conservative social polices, administration critics claim.
The White House strategy involves the suspension of a series of regulations guaranteeing the going local wage and affirmative action for minorities, while offering tax incentives for businesses in the affected region.
Education aid for displaced children will include $500m (£276m) in vouchers for private schools, while a senior Republican has also proposed a new law permitting a wide-ranging waiver of environmental regulations.
The White House has argued that the deregulation measures are designed to disentangle the relief effort from federal red tape. But Democrats are furious at the proposals. They view them as an attempt to slip through unpopular policies under cover of the wave of sympathy for Katrina's victims. "The plan they're designing for the Gulf coast turns the region into a vast laboratory for rightwing ideological experiments," said John Kerry, the party's defeated 2004 presidential candidate.
Conservative commentators see the measures as an opportunity to reverse federal entitlement programmes dating back to Franklin Roosevelt's that they argue ingrain poverty by encouraging dependency on the government. "The objection to these Bush proposals isn't fiscal, but philosophical," Rich Lowry, an editor on the National Review magazine, wrote. "They serve to undermine the principle of government dependency that underpins the contemporary welfare state, and to which liberals are utterly devoted."
The focus of Democratic opposition is the White House decision to suspend the 1931 Davis-Bacon act, which requires firms working under government contract to pay locally "prevailing wages" to workers.
Critics argue that the law's suspension will mostly benefit big corporations such as Dick Cheney's former employer, Halliburton, at the expense of the local poor who need a decent wage more than ever.
Claude Allen, the president's domestic policy adviser, argued that the deregulation measures would help local people by making it easier for small businesses to compete for contracts.
"The purpose of the waiver of Davis-Bacon and other regulations was to remove red tape so that we could get at more small businesses, medium-size businesses that do not currently contract with the federal government, to get them involved in this activity," Mr Allen told journalists.
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