Congress could decide as soon as next month whether to help farmers reeling from a drought that has withered Northern Plains pastures and forced many to drastically cut their livestock herds.
But the size of the checks -- and perhaps whether they will be cut at all -- remains uncertain. Some Republicans say their newly won control of the Senate makes drought aid more likely, but Democrats say the change may result in less money for farmers who need it.
Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., said Republicans can work with GOP House leaders and President Bush, who have opposed disaster spending unless the money can come from funds already budgeted to farm programs.
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota is skeptical.
"If (Republicans) think that it's more likely, more power to 'em," he said. "We've been trying for almost 300 days now, trying to get something done."
Daschle backed an unsuccessful plan this fall that could have given an estimated $6 billion for drought-stricken farmers and ranchers. It passed the Senate 79-16 but did not win final approval.
Anything that passes next year likely will be smaller, said Dana McGlinton, an American Farm Bureau lobbyist.
Aides to Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., are drafting a plan that would provide between $2 billion and $3 billion in help. Thomas said a package that size would be adequate and could be paid for through a combination of new, emergency spending and savings from farm programs that didn't pay out as much as expected this year.
Even though he and 30 other Republicans voted for it in September, Thomas said he doesn't think the $6 billion drought proposal "was well thought out."
"It was more of a political thing. ... That was the only option we had," he said.
Daschle conceded Democrats might find themselves where Republicans did this fall -- voting for a plan they don't agree with because some help is better than none.
"We don't want the perfect to be the enemy of the good," he said.
The House never approved drought aid, and its GOP leaders have sided with the president's view that any new aid be provided without an overall spending increase.
That was how the administration found $752 million to help ranchers who lost cattle after the drought ruined pastures. The money came from a fund financed by U.S. Customs fees that is usually used to buy surplus crops for food banks and school lunches.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said Bush wants any drought plan to avoid raising taxes or creating budget shortfalls.
He did not say how the president would react to the combination of emergency spending, which is not counted toward annual budget totals, and leftover funds that Thomas suggested.
"Congress has not come back yet, so we'll see what they put together," Stanzel said.
If Senate Republicans want to meet the president's and the House's spending targets, they will have to cut about $10 billion from spending bills approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee when it was run by Democrats, Daschle said.
The bills are on the list of unfinished business Republicans will take up in January.
Thomas, who is on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said Republicans want to wrap the bills into one large proposal that could include drought aid.
North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, said the cheaper Republican drought plan could force farmers who faced a drought last year and this year to choose whether they want help with one year or the other.
By cutting production, the drought raised crop prices. That in turn lowered the total cost of support programs that are triggered by low prices.
The leftover money is intended to stay in government coffers to cover future years during which farm programs pay out more than planned, Daschle said. But some lawmakers, including Thomas and Conrad, see the money as a possible source of financial help next year.
The leftover funds could total $5.6 billion, Conrad said, making the effect of the Democrat-backed plan on the deficit "a wash, or basically a wash."
ON THE NET
Agriculture Department: http://www.usda.gov
American Farm Bureau: http://www.fb.com