WASHINGTON – How political can it be for Congress to help farmers and ranchers suffering from a drought? Judge by the television viewing habits of Sen. George Allen of Virginia, who heads the Senate's Republican campaign operation.
"I've been watching the Weather Channel this whole year," Allen said last week. "I love seeing those green spots for South Dakota."
Green spots mean rain, which could diminish South Dakota's thirst for federal drought assistance (search). But there were not enough of those spots this election year to keep the Senate from approving a bipartisan $3 billion package of drought aid. Much of that money is for farmers in Midwestern states that are so important in voting on Nov. 2 for president and the Senate.
No such aid has won approval in the House, whose leaders and conservatives say the plan is too expensive. The GOP-led Senate and House are exploring whether they can reach a compromise to pass this week before breaking for the elections.
While the two chambers dicker over costs, the subtext is unavoidable: How can Republicans prevent Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (search), D-S.D., from using the drought fight to buttress his tight re-election campaign.
The aid plan was sponsored by Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Daschle is a vocal supporter. Unseating him would be a major coup for Republicans, who dislike Daschle's penchant for derailing their legislative priorities. Also, it would help the GOP retain its narrow Senate majority.
"They get it both ways," frets Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., of how Daschle's campaign could use the drought fight. "If the money stays, they get a big fat drought relief increase. If it's not in the bill, they have an issue."
Ever since the Senate approved the drought aid by voice vote on Sept. 14, House Republicans have seemed little moved by their Senate colleagues' concerns about Daschle. They want to kill the aid, shrink it or pay for it, perhaps from existing agriculture programs.
"You don't just panic and spend billions of dollars," said conservative Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and most other senators disagree. Frist said he is fighting for the money "in aggressive fashion," backed by what others say is more than 60 of the 100 senators.
"There's nothing political about it," said Daschle, noting bipartisan support for the money. He equated it with the billions in hurricane aid that Congress is sending Florida and other Southeastern states.
Daschle said Republicans controlling the White House and Congress would be blamed if the aid is killed or cut. "I mean, that's exactly what happened two years ago," he said.
Daschle's reference was to the 2002 re-election of his colleague, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. Johnson eked out a 524-vote victory over then-Rep. John Thune (search), who is challenging Daschle this year.
Thune's defeat came after President Bush used a South Dakota campaign visit to reiterate his opposition to a Senate-approved $6 billion drought plan.
Thune had his own $6 billion proposal, but the administration wanted less than $1 billion. That seemed to undermine Thune's contention that as senator he would influence White House decisions.
"That's what defeated him the first time," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., a supporter of the current drought aid. "I don't think the second time's the charm."
White House officials have declined comment on the issue this year. Bush has not proposed any drought aid, and wants it kept off a hurricane aid measure that lawmakers are writing.
Even so, a Daschle television ad running statewide reminds viewers of the 2002 battle. It shows Thune applauding as Bush speaks and a superimposed newspaper headline says, "Bush breaks news to South Dakota: No drought aid."
"John Thune put his party ahead of our state and let us down," the announcer says. "South Dakota needs a leader, not a follower, in the Senate."
Thune has not responded to that ad, but campaign manager Dick Wadhams said Thune supports this year's Senate-approved drought measure.
Wadhams said if the package is killed or reduced, it would refute Daschle's argument that he should be re-elected because as party leader he can win legislative prizes for South Dakota.
"When he doesn't deliver, he plays victim and says, `Oh, those horrible Republicans,'" Wadhams said.