WASHINGTON (AP) – The White House scrambled Thursday to defend itself against criticism that it has consistently proposed cutting the budget for Army Corps of Engineers water and flood control projects – including several that could have mitigated the disaster in New Orleans.

Just in February, President Bush proposed cutting the Corps’ budget by 7 percent. The year before, Bush proposed a 13 percent cut.

Both cuts are part of an annual ritual in Washington in which the president shortchanges lawmakers’ pet projects, knowing Congress will restore the money later on.

On Thursday, however, the Bush White House made available top Corps officials to assure reporters that cuts to the agency’s budget did not cause the disaster. Even though the administration has chronically cut back on the Corps of Engineers’ own requests for funding – including two key New Orleans-area projects – White House officials trumpeted the administration’s support for the Corps.

“Flood control has been a priority of this administration from Day One,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters.

Mike Parker, a former Mississippi congressman who was booted as civilian head of the Corps in 2002 after criticizing the White House budget office, Hurricane Katrina was so powerful that flooding was inevitable. But it might not have been as bad.

“I’m not saying that this would not have occurred in New Orleans in this situation,” Parker told The Associated Press. “I am saying that there would have been less flooding if all the projects had been funded.”

A senior Corps commander discounted the notion the disaster could have been averted by full funding of projects such as new and beefed up levees to protect against hurricane surges from Lake Pontchartrain and improving pumping and drainage capacity in New Orleans.

“These (projects) were not funded at the full ability of the Corps of Engineers to execute the project,” said Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers. “But the important question is, ‘Would that have made a difference?’ And my assessment is, no, it would not.”

But Strock did acknowledge that more funding for the Southeast Louisiana Flood Control Project would allow the Corps to more quickly pump out the floodwaters inundating New Orleans.

“Had we had the SELA project finished … we could more efficiently move the water out of the system because it’s a big drainage project,” Strock said.

Other presidents also have taken aim at the Corps’ budget. President Carters’ first veto came against a big water projects bill passed by a Democratic-dominated Congress. And President Clinton squeezed the Corps budget as well. Doing so frees money for other White House priorities.

“I fought every … administration when they tried to use the Corps of Engineers as a piggy bank to pay for other projects,” said former House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston, a Louisiana Republican who represented the New Orleans suburbs for more than 20 years. “I had major battles with the Clinton administration.”

“Going back to Carter. They’ve all sought to draw down the Corps of Engineers and put it elsewhere,” he said.

Former Louisiana Sen. John Breaux, a Democrat, said it was clear during his time in Congress that flood control projects were shortchanged.

“Those levees are OK under normal times but once every hundred years, that’s not enough,” he said in an interview. “We’ve all said for years that a category 4 or 5 hurricane hit just right on New Orleans, there was nothing there sufficient to prevent New Orleans from being 20 feet under water.”

AP-ES-09-01-05 1830EDT

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