WASHINGTON -- Two months after President Bush promised to confront Gulf Coast poverty with ''bold action," the US government is moving on a far more narrow track to aid the hurricane-devastated region, focusing on pouring concrete rather than confronting the underlying race and poverty issues through Bush's ambitious proposals.
After passing $70 billion in aid to the Gulf Coast in the emotion-pitched weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck, Congress closed for Thanksgiving vacation with little appetite to spend more.
While the aid package stands as a record for a natural disaster, it amounts to a fraction of the more than $200 billion that Louisiana senators had requested, or the $150 billion that outside specialists had predicted that Hurricane Katrina would cost the federal government.
Meanwhile, President Bush's call to ''rise above the legacy of inequality" with programs to substantially increase home ownership and train workers for better jobs has gone virtually unheeded by Congress.
''You don't need a lot of new programs," said US Senator John E. Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican who has been at the center of congressional debates over Katrina spending.
''What you need," Sununu said, ''is to put the disaster assistance funds into the hands of the right people and the right levels of government and let them use that to rebuild public infrastructure, to get schools reopened. That will create an environment where businesses can restart, where people can rebuild their homes and get back to a normal life."
In a national address on Sept. 15, President Bush promised to take sweeping steps to reverse the rampant poverty that Americans witnessed on television in Katrina's aftermath. But rather than build support for his plans to showcase conservative antipoverty programs, Bush's speech provoked a backlash from a public leery of exorbitant federal spending.
The Republican Party paid a political price, as opinion polls tipped in favor of the Democrats on the question of which party is better at controlling federal spending -- a result at odds with the historical reputations of both parties.
In Congress, House Republicans proposed cuts in social programs to offset the costs of Katrina. This led to a clash over the federal budget that will continue when Congress reconvenes. And lawmakers remain wary of spending more money on low-lying areas such as New Orleans that remain vulnerable to hurricane-induced floods.
The president's speech was not the only proposal that contributed to a slammed door on generosity. Many lawmakers were equally turned off by a $200 billion-plus aid request put forward by Louisiana Senators Mary L. Landrieu, a Democrat, and David Vitter, a Republican. That package, Sununu said, was a ''fiasco both substantively and politically."
To its critics, the huge request -- which earmarked subsidies for such constituents as sugar growers and alligator farmers -- looked like a replay of the giveaways that were tucked inside much-criticized transportation and energy bills that Congress passed earlier in the year.
''They misread the political climate by overreaching," Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said of the Louisiana lawmakers' request.
Bush, too, seemed to have misread the appetite for antipoverty programs. He laid out a vision for combating inequality on the Gulf Coast at a time when televised scenes of stranded residents, most of whom were poor and black, prompted charges that his administration had botched efforts to rescue a vulnerable population.
Speaking from Jackson Square in New Orleans, Bush called on the nation ''to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality." He proposed more minority-owned businesses and homes in the area, and job training for those in need.
Critics say the president's speech was a public relations-driven message. ''The overwhelming negative public reaction to what seemed to be a diffident response led his team to overcompensate and make big promises," said Mann. ''It was a campaign speech."
A White House spokesman, Ken Lisaius, said the president remains committed to his promises, but added that the administration has been focused on the immediate needs of the devastated region.
''We've been moving forward in all those areas," Lisaius said of the antipoverty proposals put forward by the president.
To fiscal conservatives, Bush's address was greeted as ''limitless, stunning in scope," said Alison Acosta Fraser, an economic scholar at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. And it prompted a rebellion by several groups advocating taxpayers.
Since then, the White House has been forced to operate under a more constrained political reality.
An administration request for $17 billion in Gulf Coast aid, sent to Capitol Hill late last month, resulted in no new funding and instead will be taken out of the initial $62 billion in emergency funds appropriated immediately after the storm. (So far, only $20 billion of that emergency funding has been committed.)
Instead of stressing antipoverty efforts, as the president did in his speech, the new proposal advertises its ''fiscal responsibility."
Most of the $17 billion and other aid allocated to the Gulf Coast would go to tasks such as clearing debris; rebuilding highways, bridges, levees, and waterways; and reconstructing public facilities such as military bases and Veterans Affairs medical centers. Residents and business owners have been granted short-term tax relief as well as temporary housing and aid for rebuilding.
But the antipoverty programs the president proposed are more like side dishes in a feast of reconstruction funding.
The president's plan for a Gulf Opportunity Zone to provide tax incentives for businesses, including minority businesses, is pending in Congress. But it has run into opposition from social conservatives who oppose tax breaks for businesses that they consider morally suspect.
''Prohibiting massage parlors, liquor stores, and casinos from getting tax breaks is not a tough call," Representative Frank R. Wolf, Republican of Virginia, and 65 other members of Congress wrote in a letter to the House leadership. ''In fact, there really shouldn't be any debate."
Bush also proposed an Urban Homesteading Act to increase homeownership by giving building sites to low-income citizens, and contracting with charities to build houses.
While a relatively small homesteading fund, $200 million, is in the administration's $17 billion request, the bulk of long-term housing money is being sent through Community Development Block Grants.
''These are logical vehicles to use in disaster recovery," and were used effectively in New York City after 9/11, said Brian Sullivan, spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The president also proposed Worker Recovery Accounts, at $5,000 per individual, for job education and training. While there is some job training money in the administration plan, the more costly proposal is still pending in Congress.
Meanwhile, lawmakers appear in no mood to enact ambitious programs to combat Gulf Coast poverty.
Though Congress's actions did not match Bush's soaring rhetoric, ''reconstruction efforts continue," Sununu said. ''The cities and towns affected by the hurricanes are full of resourceful people who are committed to their communities, who began the rebuilding and reconstruction effort long before any pronouncement of new initiatives or even specific spending to deal with hurricanes."
© 2005 Boston Globe