Washington The Senate voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to provide almost $6 billion for ranchers and farmers battered by the drought, ignoring President Bush's objections and highlighting the pressures lawmakers face as elections for congressional control draw near.
With crops and pastures withering across the West, Midwest and Southeast, the measure was approved by a bipartisan 79-16 margin. Thirty-one Republicans joined 47 Democrats and one independent in supporting the proposal, as senators showed little taste for opposing a new boost in farm assistance at the height of the campaign season.
"'Help us with the drought,"' was the plea from agrarian states, said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., the chief sponsor. "'Provide us assistance. Do what is right."'
Underlining the political stakes, just one of the 16 GOP senators running for re-election in November Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama opposed the package. Colorado, South Dakota, Iowa and Montana are among several states hit hard by the drought where close contests could decide which party has the Senate majority next year.
Bush has said that to prevent reborn federal deficits from getting worse, aid for farmers and ranchers with parched lands should come from the $180 billion, six-year farm bill enacted in May or from other budget savings. Daschle's plan would be financed by government borrowing, which would drive up projected red ink.
"This proposal would add $6 billion on top of the already generous farm bill only a few months after the bill was enacted. This is unacceptable," Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman wrote in a late plea that went ignored.
The Republican-run House has not approved any drought aid, and its GOP leaders have supported Bush's demand that any new aid be paid for.
Supporters of the proposal said that just as Congress provides disaster aid for floods and hurricanes, it should help the thousands of growers whose livelihoods have been threatened by bone-dry conditions unseen in many states for decades.
"It's also the American thing to do to help our farmers and ranchers," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.