Congressional Republican leaders, faced with dwindling time before a scheduled Oct. 8 adjournment, are considering delaying for weeks or even until next year legislation providing hundreds of billions of dollars for highway projects and government operations.
Lawmakers and aides said it is likely that final action on a nearly $300 billion, six-year transportation bill, as well as annual spending bills funding many government departments and agencies, will be delayed at least until mid-November.
GOP leaders said they are determined to approve quickly a $10.2 billion relief package, requested by the Bush administration, to aid victims and assist businesses, farmers and government facilities hurt by recent hurricanes in the Southeast.
But approval of even that popular legislation has been complicated by the insistence of farm-state senators that the aid be coupled with $2.9 billion of assistance to agricultural producers suffering from drought and other weather-related losses.
The drought relief, tacked onto a recently passed Senate bill funding the Department of Homeland Security, was not requested by President Bush. Fiscal conservatives in the House adamantly oppose such a large farm aid package unless other agricultural programs are cut
The White House was reviewing the matter late yesterday, said Chad Kolton, spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget
Florida's two senators, both Democrats, have been pressing for additional assistance to citrus growers hit by weather-related losses. The issue is politically volatile because of the state's importance in the presidential election.
The drought aid would go mainly to the more arid western Great Plains states, most of which are seen as safe for Bush. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said he does not believe the relief belongs in the bill funding the Department of Homeland Security. He noted that the six-year farm bill Congress enacted in 2002 contained provisions enabling the secretary of agriculture to indemnify farmers from certain losses.
But the GOP's handling of drought aid could reverberate in the key South Dakota Senate race, where John Thune (R) has a chance to defeat Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D), a sponsor of the drought aid legislation.
Daschle said that approving hurricane relief but not drought aid would be a "double standard in fairness." Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), a fellow farm-state Democrat, noted in a statement that government farm payments under the 2002 farm program are running $16 billion below estimates of the Congressional Budget Office.
Even bigger problems face the proposed six-year transportation bill. Authority for the nation's transit and highway programs will expire at midnight Thursday, but regional and fiscal disagreements have stymied action on the bill for months.
At a luncheon meeting of Republican senators, Sen. James M. Imhofe (Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, pleaded for one last push for passage before Congress.
"We are very hopeful that we can address the highway bill," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said after the meeting. But he added: "If not, there'll be an extension."
Asked how things stood on the bill, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) replied: "Not good."
Among the options under discussion, House and Senate aides said, were extending the present program until a lame-duck session of Congress in November, or extensions that could postpone action on the new highway program for six to eight months.
Sharp differences remain between states over the formula used to distribute highway funds. Still to be worked out as well is the final list of "high priority projects" that lawmakers earmark for their states or districts. The White House has said the bill is too costly.
GOP leaders must also agree on how to keep the federal government operating when fiscal 2004 ends at midnight Thursday. DeLay said talks are underway with the Senate about the duration of a "continuing resolution" to keep the government operating. Congress has completed action on bills funding only one department, Defense, in the fiscal year that will begin Friday.