- The Washington Times - Friday, August 16, 2002

RAPID CITY, S.D. The Great Plains drought, which President Bush addressed yesterday, has become a political tinderbox for South Dakota's Republican candidate for Senate, Rep. John Thune, a fiscal conservative who is at odds with Democrats' calls for a no-strings federal bailout.

Mr. Bush yesterday held a round table on the drought, and the government's declaration of a disaster area has made farmers eligible for low-cost loans. But the president again resisted the proposal of the state's Democratic senators, Tim Johnson and Majority Leader Tom Daschle, for a $5 billion emergency handout.

"We want to help deal with this drought," Mr. Bush said yesterday at Mount Rushmore. But he added, "It's important to set priorities and watch our spending."

Mr. Daschle accused Mr. Bush of paying lip service to the state's agriculture industry.

"I'm very surprised he didn't come with more to offer," Mr. Daschle said. "I was confident he'd come with some help and some hope. Farmers and ranchers got neither."

Mr. Thune, locked in a tight race to unseat Mr. Johnson and return the Senate to Republican control, has proposed using unspent money from this year's farm bill to provide drought relief. The White House is backing Mr. Thune's candidacy aggressively.

With the spending issue at an impasse, however, Mr. Thune acknowledged this week that some farmers want the aid as quickly as possible and don't share his concern about busting the federal budget.

"There's some of that," Mr. Thune said in an interview. "People want a system; they don't care how they get it."

The drought is most severe in the western half of the state, which is predominantly Republican territory. Rancher Loras Riggins, 79, of Wall, said he wants the emergency aid.

"The worst part of it is, I'm a Republican," Mr. Riggins said. "Would [Mr. Bush] rather break all the ranchers and put us in the situation we were in back in the 1930s?"

Mr. Thune said farmers warm up to his proposal when he explains that it would provide up to $6 billion in relief without adding to the federal budget deficit. He has proposed transferring money budgeted for crop-price supports that won't be used this year owing to high prices and low harvests.

"Most people, when they hear the merits of the argument I've made, they're responding very favorably to it," Mr. Thune said. "Most people out here want to do this in a fiscally responsible way if they can. The cry of Daschle, Johnson and others is, they just pull a number out of the air. It doesn't matter how much. In their case, more is better. If I said $5 billion, they'd say $10 billion. That's the kind of dynamic that's at work."

Mr. Daschle says Mr. Thune's plan won't work, pointing to a ruling by the Congressional Budget Office earlier this month that any savings from the farm bill cannot be counted as "offsets" for such drought aid.

Mr. Johnson said the president's refusal to approve emergency spending was "most disappointing."

"That's what we've always done," Mr. Johnson said. "That's what we're going to have to do this time."

Mr. Daschle said the Senate would begin work on another emergency appropriations measure as soon as lawmakers return to Washington in early September.

Instead of a check, Mr. Bush brought with him to South Dakota a short lecture on fiscal responsibility. He reminded South Dakotans that the administration this week released $150 million for feed supplement, and declared 64 of the state's 66 counties as disaster areas eligible for low-interest loans. He said there should be ample aid for drought relief in the $180 billion farm bill.

"I expected that relief to come from the farm bill so we don't run up additional deficits," he said.

Mr. Thune appeared to accept that reasoning, telling Mr. Bush on stage, "Fire and drought are just God's way of reminding us who's really in charge. We will weather this storm. We are grateful you came here to witness our adversity."

The drought has become a dominant political issue. Gov. William J. Janklow took a Washington Times reporter on a tour this week to view the low level of the Missouri River reservoir at the Oahe Dam in Pierre, the state capital.

"This is the lowest I've ever seen it in my life," Mr. Janklow said. "This [the drought] is worse than 1936."

Mr. Janklow, a Republican running for the House seat held by Mr. Thune, said Messrs. Johnson, Daschle and Thune all share the blame for not coming up with a solution for the drought aid.

"They're all playing games," Mr. Janklow said. "I'm not going to criticize the others by name. Why are they fighting over what account to take it from? Why don't they just authorize the president, go do it and we'll backfill it. It's politics. They'd rather try to look good and make somebody else look bad than deal with the problem."

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