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Senate OKs $6-Billion Drought Aid

Economy: The action counters Bush's hopes to curb spending. Critics see an election-year ploy to boost farm-state Democrats' fortunes.

September 11, 2002|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Defying President Bush's efforts to hold the line on spending, the Democratic-led Senate, in a vote tinged with election-year politics, on Tuesday approved nearly $6 billion in emergency aid for drought-stricken farmers and ranchers.

Critics of the relief measure said it was a ploy by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to aid Democratic farm-state senators, including his South Dakota colleague, Sen. Tim Johnson, who are in tight reelection fights. Johnson faces a strong challenge from Republican John R. Thune in one of the races central to control of the Senate.

The 79-16 vote approving drought relief was an early skirmish in the many spending battles expected between the administration and Congress.

With the federal budget again running at a deficit, Bush wants to clamp down on spending, especially for politically popular programs.

"We have to come to the recognition that deficits don't come from heaven," said Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), who opposed the aid. "Deficits occur because we make decisions."

Bush has expressed sympathy for farmers and ranchers, but he wants drought relief to be drawn from a recently approved farm bill that provides $180 billion to farmers over the next decade.

But the difficult task facing the administration's push for budget restraint was underscored when farm-state Republicans joined Democrats in approving the drought assistance. The measure faces a more uncertain future in the Republican-controlled House.

The drought is rated moderate or worse in nearly half the contiguous United States, and severe or worse in a third of the country, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center.

In the East, drought encompasses large areas from New England south to Georgia and west to Illinois and Alabama. In the West, it extends from Montana south to the Mexican border and west to Oregon and Southern California. It also extends east to the High Plains from western South Dakota to Kansas, and it now is reaching into Missouri as well.

"To go to farms that have had crops--some good, some bad--but crops every year for 70 years and today see that this year there is no crop for the first time ever is an eye-opening experience," said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). "To walk across a cornfield and find only shriveled cobs that can barely be shucked and have no kernels is an eye-opening experience. This isn't a result of poor planning or some unfortunate weather; this is the result of a natural disaster."

An aide to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who voted for the bill, said the measure would help California avocado and almond growers whose crops were damaged by other natural disasters, including freezing temperatures and wildfires, in addition to drought. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) also voted for the measure.

"It's helpful to California," said Jack King, director of national affairs for the California Farm Bureau. "This helps farmers who suffered unusual natural disasters. It gives them a boost at a time when times are tough."

No estimates were available on the economic losses to California agriculture caused by natural disaster. In South Dakota, the fiscal loss attributed to drought has been estimated at $1.8 billion. "Some counties have had less rain this year than they had in 1936 during the Dust Bowl," Daschle said.

The drought assistance was included in a $19-billion spending bill for the Interior Department. The House's Interior spending bill does not include any drought assistance, and an influential farm group vowed to lobby hard for the aid.

"We've got a lot of work left, but it can be done," said Chris Garza, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the administration was committed to work with Congress to help farmers. But, he said, "we can do it and should do it in a way that is within budget limitations and that does not bust the budget."

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said in a letter to Senate leaders: "The farm bill should break the bad fiscal habit of needing to pass emergency agriculture spending bills including drought, flood, or other supplemental payments that make it difficult for Congress to live within its budget."

But political analysts said the administration's position could hurt Republican efforts to regain control of the Senate.

"Bush's opposition to drought relief could result in a political drought for Republicans running in the farm belt," said Marshall Wittmann, a political scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington. "Daschle sent a direct dare to the White House to oppose a drought relief bill that is deeply desired in the farm belt. This bill highlights the difficulty of having any semblance of restraining congressional spending in an even-numbered election year."

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