WASHINGTON – The Senate defied President Bush on Tuesday and voted overwhelmingly to provide nearly $6 billion in aid for farmers and ranchers staggered by the drought, despite administration arguments that the proposal would cost too much.
The 79-16 vote came less than two months from elections that will decide control of the House and Senate, and amid a drought that has ravaged crops and forced ranchers to reduce the size of their herds.
Several of the 31 GOP senators from agrarian states who supported the measure said it would never become law and was mostly a political statement. Many of those states -- including South Dakota, Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado -- feature tight Senate races.
"I'll tell you what we achieve. We achieve an issue," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
The plan was proposed last week by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and counts five Republicans among its 28 co-sponsors.
Daschle said his proposal simply responded to pleas from the nation's farmers and ranchers: "Help us with the drought. Provide us assistance. Do what is right."
The measure's estimated cost, projected last week at $5 billion or more, has been updated to $5.95 billion. It would cover many losses suffered by growers or ranchers in 2001 and 2002 from bad weather or other natural causes.
The drought proposal is one of several areas where the Bush administration is seeking to clamp down on federal spending as projected federal deficits grow. The aid -- coming just four months after a $180 billion, six-year farm bill was enacted -- would be paid for by making federal shortfalls even worse.
"We have to come to the recognition that deficits don't come from heaven," said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas. "Deficits occur because we make decisions."
Democrats argue that the spending that Bush wants to cut pales compared to the $1.35 trillion, 10-year tax cut he muscled through Congress last year.
The House has yet to approve drought aid.
Administration officials and GOP opponents of Daschle's plan say that eventually, the Senate and the Republican-controlled House will produce a final version that is less expensive and at least partly paid for with savings from elsewhere in the budget. Bush has said he favors drought aid but wants savings to pay for it so the federal deficit does not grow.
Many Republicans said they felt compelled to vote for the plan because Daschle used Senate procedures to ensure that senators could vote for or against the proposal, but not amend it.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and other Democrats argue that the government can pay for the aid because some federal farm spending is proving less expensive than expected.
Republicans say that ignores the larger picture. They say that some other types of federal farm aid are growing in cost, and that the slow economy has driven up the price tag of other programs such as unemployment insurance.
Daschle's proposal is an amendment to a $19.3 billion measure financing the Interior Department and federal cultural programs next year.