At least 40 senators do not like it, the Farmers Home Administration does not like it and an array of organizations from home builders to tenants to rural activists do not like it, but Sen. Harrison H. Schmitt (R-N.M.) is not letting go.
Schmitt is pushing for floor action on legislation that would turn over FmHA's multibillion-dollar subsidized rural housing programs to the states with block grants funded at drastically lower levels than now.
The Schmitt proposal, part of a housing and development bill in the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, could come to a final vote after Congress returns from recess next month. It has all the ingredients of a classic Pier 6 legislative brawl.
With offices in virtually all of the nation's counties, FmHA for more than 30 years has been the chief provider of subsidized assistance for construction and rehabilitation of much-needed housing for low-income and elderly rural residents.
Schmitt's plan would allow the states, most of which do not have housing development programs, to take over these rural activities. FmHA's housing programs this year will cost about $4 billion. Under Schmitt's proposal, the block grants would be limited to $850 million.
Schmitt says his idea is to provide housing aid to the very neediest, who do not receive it from FmHA. His critics say that is poppycock and that his plan not only would decimate FmHA but also make it more difficult for the needy to receive aid by toughening the requirements.
A bipartisan coalition of 40 senators, led by Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), has dug in and is plugging for an amendment that would cancel the block-grant approach and continue rural housing aid under FmHA at current fiscal-year levels.
FmHA now provides home loans in low-income rural areas at interest below the market rate, ranging as low as 1 percent in the neediest cases. Under the Schmitt proposal, the subsidy portion of FmHA activities would go to the states in the block grants.
Because of the wide range of support for the Cochran-Cranston amendment, from Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) on the right to Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) on the left, GOP leaders reportedly are not eager to move the legislation to the floor for fear of another wrenching blood-letting among friends.
Cochran and Cranston are backed from the outside by organizations often at each other's throats -- for example, the National Association of Home Builders, the National Rural Housing Coalition and the Housing Assistance Council.
"When you eliminate the entire mechanism of FmHA, our people just see red," said Jim Schuyler, a home builders legislative aide here. "And this is a situation where you have not only housing providers but the recipients' groups united, which doesn't happen all that frequently."
Earlier this month, Schmitt offered some moderating amendments to his block-grant plan, but Cochran and company are not buying. "There's no compromise to be made," a Cochran aide said. "Sen. Cochran simply isn't changing his position."
There's another fillip to this one: the administration is supporting Schmitt's block-grant approach, but officials at FmHA, an arm of the Agriculture Department, privately call the plan a disaster.
White House support was outlined in a letter July 30 to Schmitt from David A. Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Agriculture Secretary John R. Block. Block was out of town when the letter was prepared, and Seeley Lodwick, undersecretary for international affairs and commodity programs, signed it in his stead.
USDA sources indicated that FmHA and other departmental officials felt that Lodwick, not familiar with the housing issues, had inadvertently signed away the department's bargaining room for getting changes in the Schmitt bill.
Said one FmHA official: "There was some consternation about the letter because there is no clear understanding that Schmitt has addressed the department's concerns . . . His bill doesn't deal with a number of things like lending for apartments, or credits for rental housing or energy-saving requirements in construction."
"Nobody's too excited about this," a USDA spokesman added, "because we don't think the legislation is going very far."