Senate Showdown Mires Aid Bill

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Senate got bogged down last week on a $106.5 billion emergency spending bill for the Iraq war and hurricane recovery. But the biggest fights had nothing to do with the military or helping out residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Instead, the bill has turned into a showdown over priorities and how much Senate Republicans are willing to spend to help GOP candidates in the upcoming midterm election. The debate pits fiscal conservatives, led by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), against more politically minded Republicans, who want to use pork-barrel spending to curry favor with voters in November.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said extraneous provisions would be "highly discouraged," stressing to his colleagues that despite the temptations, "what we don't need to be doing is funding excessive projects now."

President Bush has issued a rare veto threat and is demanding that about $11.5 billion worth of special projects that were added to his original $92.2 billion request be stripped out before final passage. But even if the bill does shrink, lawmakers are expected to tweak it to their liking.

For instance, the bill would provide nearly $4 billion in aid to farmers and ranchers, including direct payments to offset rising natural gas costs and new relief from drought, floods and wildfires. And it contains an additional $794 million in highway and transit funding -- less than a year after Congress passed a record-breaking transportation bill that included $24 billion in special projects, or earmarks.

Some of the hurricane-related provisions have raised eyebrows, including $700 million to relocate a rail line in the Gulf Coast that was recently refurbished. Coburn's bid to delete the funding narrowly failed last Wednesday, by a vote of 49 to 48.

Coburn returned to the Senate floor Thursday, seeking to trim $15 million in funding for seafood promotion. "So what we are going to do is take and give $15 million to a private entity of the seafood producers to spend to increase the demand for seafood," Coburn said. "That may be all right, but it is certainly not an emergency." The amendment succeeded on a voice vote.

This week, Coburn will seek a vote to delete $176 million to rebuild an armed forces retirement home in Gulfport, Miss. The long-term fate of that facility hasn't been officially determined. Five options are on the table, including relocating the facility. Coburn said that damage to the facility is not extensive and that the amount provided in the bill is arbitrary and excessive for basic repairs.

The senator also is targeting a provision that would provide as much as $500 million to Northrop Grumman Corp., which operates a shipbuilding facility in Pascagoula, Miss., to compensate the company for losses related to the storm. The White House cautioned that the Northrop language could provide an incentive for insurance companies to deny payments to Navy contractors, among other precedents, and urged the Senate to drop it.

The Northrop facility is a major industrial anchor for the region, and its patron is Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the former majority leader, who also played a crucial role in preserving the rail funding.

One other possible Coburn target: $11.3 million for the Sacramento River Bank Protection Project in California, added by the Senate to the Army Corps of Engineers' allocation.

Senators will try to tack on more projects once debate resumes, including $27 million for the new U.S. Capitol Visitors Center, an underground facility that is already hundreds of millions of dollars over budget and more than a year behind schedule.

By far, agriculture would be the biggest beneficiary of the additional spending. The package includes $1.5 billion of energy assistance to the industry to offset spikes in natural gas prices, which started climbing long before Katrina-related disruptions last year. One champion of the provision is Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), whom Democrats are targeting in November. Montana farmers and ranchers would receive about $30 million in direct payments under the bill.

Many U.S. households struggled to pay high heating bills this past winter, but farmers were especially hard hit. Natural gas is used for irrigation, crop drying, food processing, crop protection and nitrogen fertilizer production, according to the Agriculture Energy Alliance, a national coalition of farm groups and agribusinesses.

Burns said cost increases have forced farmers in his state to cut their fuel and fertilizer use by one-third, jeopardizing their ability to plant this year. "The net effect is our family farms and small towns have suffered a deep economic hit," he said in a statement. "This package is rational, reasonable, necessary, and urgently needed."

The Department of Agriculture questioned the sum, along with $2.5 billion that the bill also includes for agricultural damages related to floods, drought, wildfires and other natural disasters. One calamity that was overlooked, insect infestation, was addressed in a $30 million amendment that Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) offered Thursday on the Senate floor.

The Bush administration said it "strongly opposed" the additional agriculture funding, noting that many crops were at or near record production levels in 2005 and that farm-sector cash receipts were the second-highest ever. It called the aid "excessive" and said the level of assistance "may overcompensate certain producers for their losses."

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