WASHINGTON - The Republican chairman of a special House investigation panel has subpoenaed the Pentagon, and is considering sending another to the White House, to get documents detailing the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.
The unusual legal action was the latest twist in the congressional inquiry of failures that occurred during the Aug. 29 storm that killed more than 1,300 people in Gulf Coast states. The investigation continues Thursday with a Senate hearing to examine New Orleans levees unable to withstand Katrina's might.
Separately, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it would comply with a judge's ruling that FEMA keep paying for hotel rooms for hurricane evacuees until Feb. 7. The agency also agreed to extend the program for eligible storm victims who have not been helped by that deadline.
The subpoena against Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, issued Wednesday evening by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., demands internal records and communications about the Pentagon's response, efforts to send supplies to victims, stabilize public safety and mobilize active duty forces in the Gulf Coast. It requires the Pentagon to deliver the documents, spanning from Aug. 23 to Sept. 15, from Rumsfeld and eight other top military officials by Dec. 30.
Pentagon spokesman Army Maj. Paul Swiergosz said the panel's requests for information have been "very far-reaching and very broad, and we're doing everything we can to answer them as quickly as we can."
"We're going to provide the documents as fast as we can," Swiergosz said. "No one has been dragging their feet on these things."
Davis rejected, for now, legal action against the White House, but left open the possibility of a future subpoena. He asked lawmakers to wait until after a private briefing Thursday at the White House before deciding whether to go ahead with a subpoena.
The committee, which plans to issue its findings Feb. 15, requested hundreds of thousands of documents more than two months ago from the administration and Gulf Coast state and local officials.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said lawmakers would be briefed by a high-level administration official and that he did not immediately anticipate a subpoena against the White House.
"I'm not expecting anything of that nature at this point," McClellan said. "What we have done is work to make sure that they get the information they need to do their job. We've worked in good faith."
The Pentagon subpoena was issued shortly after FEMA pledged to continue paying for hotel rooms for evacuees still unable to find apartments, trailers or other stable housing by Feb. 7, a month beyond the agency's cutoff date.
A federal judge in New Orleans this week set the February deadline in a ruling to give victims more time in hotels as FEMA processes aid applications.
FEMA's acting director, R. David Paulison, did not cite an end-date for the hotel payments, but said "it won't be indefinite." He said FEMA will pay hotel bills for up to two weeks after evacuees receive temporary housing assistance because "sometimes it's tough to find an apartment."
An estimated 40,000 families still are living in hotels, compared with a peak of 85,000 two months ago.
"We are going to be flexible, we will make changes to our plan as we move along," Paulison said. "And we are going to continuously work to make sure nobody falls through the cracks. And if they do fall through the cracks, we are going to find them, locate them and get them back into our system."