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Sen. Patrick Leahy has drafted a $6 billion plan to create 168,000 jobs in rural America, where one in four children lives in poverty and one in eight workers is unemployed.

"While we spent billions of taxpayers' dollars on defense, S&L bailouts and foreign aid, the needs of rural America were ignored," said Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. "Rural America, now in the void created by a decade of neglect, needs our immediate attention."Leahy, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, introduced the Rural Jobs and Investment Act on Wednesday.

He said the legislation targets money to programs that have proven records and to those with backlogs of unfunded projects, such as water and sewer construction and repair, electric power transmission, business expansion and affordable housing.

The bill includes more than $2 billion for water and sewer needs, $700 million to meet the demand for Rural Electrification Administration loans, $500 million for economic loan and grant programs and $1 billion for housing construction.

Leahy said the $500 million for rural loans and grants is the same amount the Bush administration had sought for economic development in Latin America this year.

Leahy contends the legislation will not add to the deficit because the cost would be offset by creating jobs, which in turn would lower the cost of federal assistance to the unemployed while boosting tax revenues.

"The key to the success of this initiative is to create jobs and to do it quickly. We need workers to be hired now, not 10 months from now," Leahy said. "By putting people back to work, we not only improve the faltering economy of rural America but save millions of dollars for the nation."

Nevertheless, the bill faces a tough fight in Congress, said co-sponsor Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

"We're hurting in the heartland; this is the kind of help we need," he said. "There is a growing understanding that the rural part of the country has been very hard hit and if we are going to bring forces home from overseas, they need to come home to jobs and opportunity, and this is one way of providing that."