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Senate Defies Bush on Drought Aid Huge Bipartisan Majority Approves $6 Billion in Relief for Farmers, Ranchers

(Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

By Helen Dewar Washington Post Staff Writer Wednesday, September 11, 2002; Page A03:

Defying President Bush by a huge, bipartisan majority, the Senate voted yesterday to provide nearly $6 billion in emergency drought relief to farmers and ranchers that the administration has opposed as too costly.

The vote was 79 to 16, with two-thirds of Republicans joining nearly all Democrats to help Farm Belt states, which many strategists believe will play a decisive role in the contest for control of the Senate in the November elections.

The margin of defeat -- the most resounding so far for Bush's effort to hold the line on domestic appropriations -- underscored the difficulty of trying to squeeze popular programs in an election year.

"This is an emergency. We need this help. . . . Provide us with assistance. Do what is right," said Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), whose home state is one of those hardest hit by the widespread drought. Some Republicans complained that the Daschle-drafted proposal was a thinly disguised Democratic effort to woo critical states in the midterm elections. "Unfortunately, the vote . . . was just a political statement," said Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who voted against the measure.

Few challenged it openly, however, knowing it was headed for easy passage and was highly popular in many states whose farmers have suffered.

One Republican who did challenge it, Sen. Phil Gramm (Tex.), who is not seeking reelection this fall, accused the Senate of being "willing to throw fiscal restraint out the door" by adding $6 billion to a deficit that is "swelling daily." He said he didn't want to hear any more lectures from Democrats about deficit spending. "Do we want these deficits to go even higher, or are we willing to take a stand?" he asked.

The drought aid would come on top of the record-high farm subsidy bill that Congress passed earlier this year, which is projected to cost $180 billion over the next decade. In a letter to senators earlier this week, Agriculture Secretary Ann M.Veneman reiterated the administration's opposition to the aid and said drought assistance should be financed out of the farm bill.

But Senate Democrats said that House Republicans, with administration backing, had refused to include in the measure funding to help cover current livestock and crop losses. They also said that spending under the new farm bill would fall $5.6 billion short of projections, covering most of the cost of the proposed drought aid.

The aid was approved as part of the Interior Department appropriations bill for next year, and the vote margin was more than the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto, which the White House has threatened.

But the Republican-led House has not approved any drought aid, and several senators said yesterday that the House would almost certainly balk at the Senate's $6 billion price tag. They said the administration is likely to push for a smaller package, possibly $1 billion or $2 billion, with at least some of the cost offset by specific savings from other programs.

Although such aid is routinely approved for victims of tornadoes, hurricanes and other disasters, the drought-aid package took on special significance this year because many of the states with the biggest losses are those with the closest Senate races this fall. They include South Dakota, Missouri, Minnesota, Arkansas, Colorado and Iowa, where incumbent senators who are running for reelection this fall, regardless of party, voted for the drought aid.

In all, 31 Republicans, including many normally fiscally conservative senators from farm states, voted for the package, as did 47 Democrats and one independent. The only Democrat to oppose it was Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.). All Washington area senators voted to approve it.

The dispute over drought aid further complicates Congress's struggle to pass its 13 appropriations bills for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. Bush is insisting on domestic spending limits that have slowed action in the House and drawn defiance in the Senate. Many lawmakers are anticipating passage of one or more stopgap funding bills to cover government funding, at least until after the November elections.