Congress OKs Hurricane Aid Package

The House pushed nearly $14.5 billion for hurricane victims and struggling farmers toward passage Saturday as lawmakers sought to shower money on Florida and other pivotal states in the upcoming elections.

After weeks of delay over everything from budget cuts to milk subsidies, House-Senate bargainers added the natural disaster aid to a $10 billion military construction measure.

With both chambers holding rare weekend sessions to clear bills they wanted to finish before Election Day Nov. 2, overwhelming approval of the aid package seemed certain.

"No section of Florida was spared," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young (search), R-Fla., said of the four hurricanes that battered his state and the South this summer. "It's difficult for me to express gratitude as effectively as I should."

The legislation underscored the heightened political sensitivities of the run-up to next month's voting.

Both parties were eager to quickly ship aid to vote-rich Florida. President Bush never proposed aid for drought, floods and other agriculture emergencies aid, but the White House and members of both parties were itching to send assistance to Midwestern states that are election battlegrounds.

Lawmakers cleared other road blocks as well:

— The House debated a bill providing $32 billion for the Homeland Security Department (search) for the new budget year, which began Oct. 1. Lawmakers were determined to approve the measure before leaving town to campaign. The final problem was resolved when lawmakers from the East and Midwest agreed to wait until Congress' upcoming postelection session to fight for extending a milk subsidy program for two years.

— The Senate voted 79-6 for a bill reorganizing the way its committees oversee intelligence agencies.

— By voice vote, the Senate approved a bill increasing access to DNA testing for rape victims and convicted felons.

— The Senate sent Bush a bill ending the government's guarantee to banks of a 9.5 percent rate of return on some student loans. The guarantee had meant large profits for lenders at a time of much lower interest rates.

The natural disaster measure included $11.6 billion for Florida and other storm-struck states. Some $6.5 billion of the money was for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (search) and the aid it provides individuals and state and local governments.

The bill also included money for small business loans and repairs to damaged military facilities, veterans hospitals and parks.

An additional $2.9 billion was for farmers and ranchers hurt by drought, floods and other harsh conditions.

Bowing to demands from House conservatives and GOP leaders, the farm aid was supposed to be financed by cutting a program that pays farmers to conserve their lands. But the reductions could be reversed before they take effect near the end of the decade.

Even so, Democrats complained of a double standard because to pay for the hurricane aid, the government will borrow money, driving up the deficit.

"The message this House is sending is clear: The folks who provide the nation's food and fiber who happen to live outside the politically important Florida are in a separate and lower class," said Rep. Charles Stenholm (search), D-Texas.