Cheney visits disaster zone as feuding intensifies

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The Independent US

Defending "the folks who are getting it right," Mr Cheney said the victims "deserve the support of all of us," as he inspected damage in the shattered Mississippi city of Gulfport along with the Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and the embattled Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

"I've got some very good people with me today," Mr Cheney said, pointing to Mr Chertoff, whose department is in charge of relief efforts.

Mr Chertoff has been bitterly criticised by Republicans as well as Democrats, but Mr Cheney expressed both his own and President George Bush's "enormous confidence" in him.

As of yesterday, the official death toll from Katrina stood at 294, but the final figure will probably to run into the thousands, or higher as receding flood waters yield the truth. The cost of the storm is put at between $100bn (£55bn) and $200bn. But in political Washington the focus is already shifting to apportioning blame.

Republican Congressional leaders announced plans to set up a rare joint committee of the House and Senate to investigate what happened, and report back by 15 February. But Dem-ocrats immediately resisted, fearing a stitch-up designed to shield the White House from blame.

Harry Reid, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, attacked the idea of "a Republican-controlled Congress investigating a Republican administration." Mr Reid prefers the alternative proposed by Senator Hillary Clinton of a blue-riband independent commission drawn equally from both parties. But Republicans fired back at Ms Clinton, accusing her of grandstanding ahead of a presidential bid in 2008.

Democrats have been emboldened - and Republicans alarmed - by the public verdict on Mr Bush's performance. A new CBS poll has found that 65 per cent of Americans believe he was too slow to respond and 58 per cent disapproved of his handling of the aftermath.

Normally, public opinion here rallies behind a President in a national emergency. But the contrast between today and September 2001, when the country was united in its support for him after the terrorist attacks, could not be starker.

A separate CNN/USA Today poll suggests 42 per cent feel Mr Bush has done a "bad" or "terrible" job, compared with 35 per cent who rate his performance "good" or "great". Overwhelmingly Republicans back Mr Bush, while two-thirds of Democrats are critical, another illustration of the partisan division.

Congress is preparing to approve Mr Bush's latest request of $51.8bn for relief. The government is spending $2bn a day, as it starts to allocate major clean-up and rebuilding contracts.