Hurricane Relief Face Challenges in Congress

Top congressional Republicans must decide the fate of a $14 billion package for victims of hurricanes and drought, with the approach of Election Day (search) leaving both parties in particularly generous moods.

The House approved the measure by 412-0 Wednesday in a vote that underlined the bill's political impact. Its $11 billion in hurricane aid and $2.9 billion in farm assistance would go largely to Florida, a pivotal electoral state, and battleground farm states in the Midwest like Ohio.

"Let's get on with rebuilding a great state," said Rep. Bill Young (search), R-Fla., a chief author of the bill who was eager to bring funds home to a state staggered by four hurricanes in six weeks this summer.

First, though, the Senate must decide whether to approve the House measure. While passage before the election seems likely, many senators want more generous disaster aid or oppose the $2.9 billion in cuts to a land conservation program that the House approved to finance the drought assistance.

After weeks of opposing a $3 billion drought package approved by the GOP-run Senate as too costly, House Republicans finally advanced their own $2.9 billion proposal and added it to the hurricane measure by voice vote. Though President Bush (search) has not requested drought aid, the White House may prove reluctant to scuttle a package this close to the election.

Unlike the Senate measure — which would be financed by borrowing and making deficits higher — the House aid would be paid for by cutting a program that pays farmers to conserve their land.

The House GOP drought plan drew opposition from the American Farm Bureau Federation and more than two dozen other farm groups. In a letter to lawmakers, the groups said it was unfair to cut benefits paid to some farmers to help finance disaster aid to others.

The drought fight had an added political element in Texas. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, became sponsor of the GOP plan after House Republican leaders blocked Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, from offering his own $3 billion drought proposal. The two men are battling for re-election against each other in a new House district.

Congress has already approved $2 billion of the $13 billion Bush has requested for hurricane aid.

The House's hurricane package has money for families, small businesses, and state and local governments, as well as for damage to highways, military facilities and NASA's Kennedy Space Center. It also has $100 million for Haiti and other Caribbean nations battered by the storms, and $70 million for the American Red Cross.

Even so, many members of both parties are demanding more money for the hurricanes and other disasters that have hit other states in recent months.

Young, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee that controls spending bills, introduced a separate measure with an extra $1.6 billion for agriculture, highways and other sectors that have sustained damage. The proposal would be paid for by cuts in the farm conservation and other programs.

It is possible that before the week ends, the entire hurricane and drought package will be changed and inserted into a separate measure financing the Department of Homeland Security for this year.

That same bill could also contain provisions making it harder for some states to levy taxes on Internet services, a controversy that has raged in Congress for years.