Congress Works on Disaster Relief Package

House-Senate bargainers neared agreement Friday on an election-season $14.7 billion package of aid for East Coast hurricane (search) victims and drought-stricken farmers, participants said.

Though eleventh-hour changes remained possible, lawmakers were hoping the House would approve the legislation late Friday and recess for the last weeks of the presidential and congressional campaigns. The Senate, which was juggling several major bills, was unlikely to consider the measure until Saturday or later.

The aid was expected to be attached to a $33 billion measure financing the Department of Homeland Security, or a $10 billion package of military construction projects. Its completion would let lawmakers claim a bushel of pre-election accomplishments.

Funds for local law enforcement agencies, other domestic security spending and military facilities are widely popular. Most of the hurricane aid is destined for Florida, a key state in the Nov. 2 voting, while the aid for drought, floods and other natural disasters was to partly wind up in Midwestern swing states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

"We think we have a pretty good package," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., who said he believed an agreement was close.

Pending last-minute changes, the bill contains $11.8 billion for hurricanes, including a fresh $887 million the White House requested late Thursday. It also has $2.9 billion for farmers and ranchers hit by drought or other emergencies.

Disputes on farm aid and other issues had delayed the measure since last month. That embarrassed lawmakers eager to be seen as responding promptly to the four hurricanes that have pummeled Florida and other eastern states since mid-August.

One of the major stumbling blocks, an effort to extend milk subsidies (search), was likely to be removed from the legislation, said Young and a Senate Republican aide who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., was pushing for a two-year extension of a program that subsidizes dairy farmers if the milk price drops below a certain level. The program will otherwise expire next Oct. 1.

The subsidies are strongly supported by midwestern and eastern lawmakers but opposed by those from the West, where dairy farms tend to be too large to qualify for much of the assistance.

"We're not here for a cow protection program. We're here to protect America," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., referring to the underlying domestic security bill.

Young said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., had told him the milk language would have to be removed from bill. The issue was complicated Thursday when Bush endorsed the program during a campaign stop in Wisconsin.

"You know what, make my day," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., when asked about the provision being killed. He said its removal would deliver Wisconsin's votes to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., "on a silver platter."

Another problem was a House-approved plan to pay for the $2.9 billion in drought aid by cutting the money from a program that pays farmers to conserve their land. Those savings would remain in the bill, the Senate aide said, though Congress could change its mind because they would not take effect until after Congress writes a new farm bill (search).

An angry Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chief author of the two-year-old conservation program, used procedural delays Friday to slow the Senate's work on an unrelated intelligence bill.

"My plans are to protect my farmers," Harkin said.