- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 12, 2003

One major hurdle remains to passing a nearly $400 billion spending bill that would wrap up last year's unfinished budget: a dispute about $3.1 billion in disaster aid to U.S. farmers.
Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said yesterday that he didn't expect House and Senate conference negotiators to complete work on the 11 remaining 2003 spending bills until today at the earliest.
"We've got to solve the drought problem," Mr. Stevens said, referring to how to offset the $3.1 billion in aid with cuts in other programs. "Very clearly that's the problem holding us up."
The process is a day behind a schedule that would get the omnibus bill passed and ready for a presidential signature by the end of this week.
"This won't get resolved until the smell of jet fuel is in the nose of the members," said John Scofield, spokesman for Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee. "But we'll get this done. We just haven't reached critical mass yet."
Republican support for keeping the drought assistance in the conference report is strongest among senators from west of the Mississippi River.
"Folks like me are going to have a hard time voting for a conference report that doesn't include that," said Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican.
But the chances of the drought aid being omitted from the bill seem small.
"It's going to be in there," said Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican. "There's going to be a disaster package as part of this bill."
The real debate is how to pay for it, a necessity that stems from the desire of Republicans to stay close to the $385.9 billion spending limit demanded by the White House. The current number is closer to $400 billion, thanks to agreements to add funding for election reform ($1.5 billion), education ($2 billion), Amtrak ($1.05 billion), highways ($4.1 billion), Medicare ($1.5 billion), the FBI ($330 million), aid to fishermen ($100 million) and money to NASA for investigating the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster ($50 million).
Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, said he wanted the cost to be covered by across-the-board cuts in the omnibus spending bill and not "pulled out of the hide" of the agriculture budget. Congress passed a $180 billion farm bill last year.
"When New York went through its terrible time, we didn't take money from" the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Mr. Roberts said. "We didn't take money from other areas of the country to pay for it."
Mr. Roberts said he has "heard it about three ways from Sunday" how the White House would like to see the emergency drought assistance funded.
Earlier this month, the Office of Management and Budget said President Bush would veto the bill if the aid wasn't offset from spending in the agriculture budget. Vice President Richard B. Cheney assured the conference members during the weekend that the president would be fine with an across-the-board cut. Now, Mr. Roberts said, the White House has returned to its original stance of paying for it with the farm budget.
"I don't think [the White House] has been west of the Mississippi since they did in John Thune," Mr. Roberts said, referring to Mr. Bush's unsuccessful attempt to help Mr. Thune, a former Republican congressman from South Dakota, defeat Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson in the midterm election.
Democrats, who are mostly sitting on the sidelines during these negotiations, have seized upon the impasse about drought aid to attack the White House.
"How in the world they'd be unwilling to find even $3 billion in direct drought assistance just mystifies me," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat. "I can't believe the administration would hold up the entire omnibus package on the basis of their opposition to drought assistance, but that is exactly what's happening."

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