Drought relief complicating passage of homeland bill

By Peter Cohn, CongressDailyPM

High-level talks continued Wednesday between congressional GOP leaders and the White House over the fate of a $3 billion drought relief package added by farm state senators to the fiscal 2005 Homeland Security bill.

Aides involved in the talks said the White House is demanding the package be offset with spending cuts elsewhere, although one top GOP aide said so far the administration has not threatened a veto. House conservatives want the drought package to be offset.

"The House is trying to be fiscally responsible," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said. The Senate drought relief package would compensate farmers and ranchers for crop and livestock losses from recent natural disasters. The Bush administration has requested $10.2 billion, limited to covering losses related to the four hurricanes that have ravaged Southern and Eastern states. The absence of aid for the Midwest is creating political problems for farm state Republicans, including former Rep. John Thune, R-S.D., who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.; a co-sponsor of the drought package.

"John Thune has been very clear; he supports what the Senate did," said Thune's spokesman. "He would be on the other side of the White House on this issue."

The drought issue has also put Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., on the spot. While Mississippi would receive aid under the administration's request, cotton and peanut growers in his state are backing the Senate drought package.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has suggested the drought package be dropped from the Homeland Security bill and dealt with on the fiscal 2005 omnibus. The hurricane assistance package could be added to the Homeland Security bill, although House GOP leaders are also considering a vote on a stand-alone bill in case the Homeland Security conference bogs down.

"We're trying to give the Senate as many options as possible to make their lives as easy as possible," DeLay said.

Senate leaders are reluctant to devote floor time to a freestanding hurricane supplemental, however. House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., is preparing to introduce a stand-alone supplemental that could total more than $10.2 billion.

Meanwhile, Stevens is pushing Senate and House appropriators to wrap up the omnibus by Oct. 8, a task regarded as next to impossible by most lawmakers. He met with Young Tuesday and Senate GOP appropriators Wednesday morning to discuss attaching unfinished bills to the fiscal 2005 Legislative Branch spending bill. But House GOP aides said unless Stevens agrees to reconsider $7.6 billion in additions made to Senate bills through budget gimmicks, there is little chance of swift agreement. The House was considering a stopgap continuing resolution on Wednesday.