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House OKs $14.5 billion for victims of weather

Congress to shower money on states pivotal in election

WASHINGTON — The House on Saturday unanimously approved $14.5 billion for hurricane victims and struggling farmers as Congress moved a step closer to showering money on Florida and other pivotal states in the upcoming elections.

After weeks of delay over everything from budget cuts to milk subsidies, House-Senate bargainers added the natural disaster aid to a $10 billion military construction measure. With both chambers holding rare weekend sessions to clear bills before Election Day Nov. 2, the House passed the measure 374-0 and recessed for the campaign. Senate passage was possible as early as today.

Congress also approved a $447 billion defense bill with a military pay raise and new money for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Underscoring the bill's lack of controversy, the House approved the measure by 359-14 and the Senate gave its blessing by voice vote. Neither chamber debated the legislation before sending it to President Bush.

The bill includes an across-the-board 3.5 percent pay raise for military personnel and expanded health care for reservists, as well as $25 billion to support operational costs for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"No section of Florida was spared," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., said of the four hurricanes that battered his state and the South this summer. "It's difficult for me to express gratitude as effectively as I should."

The legislation underscored the heightened political sensitivities of the run-up to next month's voting.

Both parties were eager to quickly ship aid to vote-rich Florida. And though President Bush never proposed aid for drought, floods and other agriculture emergencies and House Republicans initially fought it, they ultimately supported that money — some of which will go to Midwestern states like Ohio that are election battlegrounds.

The House by 368-0 also passed a bill providing $33 billion for the Homeland Security Department for the new budget year, which began Oct. 1. Senators were determined to approve the measure before leaving town to campaign.

The overall bill provided nearly $900 million more than Bush proposed. It includes $1.1 billion for grants given to states based on population — $400 million more than the president wanted. But it also has $875 million — nearly $600 million below Bush — for money given to cities considered attractive terrorist targets.

In addition, money for police and other emergency responders totaled about $3.6 billion — about $500 million less than last year's total.

It also contained language blocking Bush from replacing about 1,000 immigration workers with private contractors. The provision had drawn a White House veto threat, but administration officials were telling congressional aides that Bush would not reject the bill over the issue.

Congress finally took up the Homeland measure after Eastern and Midwest lawmakers temporarily abandoned their fight — until Congress' upcoming postelection session — to extend a milk subsidy program for two years.

Lawmakers cleared other road blocks as well:

— Congress approved a bill shaping $477 billion in programs for the Pentagon for the new budget year. The measure would let the Air Force buy 100 Boeing 767's for use as midair refueling tankers, but would block a proposal to lease the aircraft.

— The Senate voted 79-6 for a bill reorganizing the way its committees oversee intelligence agencies.

— Congress sent Bush a bill increasing access to DNA testing for rape victims and convicted felons.

— The Senate sent Bush a bill ending the government's guarantee to banks of a 9.5 percent rate of return on some student loans. The guarantee had meant large profits for lenders at a time of much lower interest rates.

The natural disaster bill became home to pet projects for numerous lawmakers.

Alaska lawmakers won language setting up federal guarantees for up to $18 billion in loans for construction of a proposed pipeline to deliver natural gas from the state's North Slope to the lower 48 states.

While much of the money for disasters was not directed at specific states, Florida was clearly in line to receive the lion's share. But $50 million was set aside for crop losses in Virginia; $3 million was set aside for fruit and vegetable losses in North Carolina; and $7.2 million for an agricultural transportation cooperative in Hawaii.

Overall, the natural disaster measure included $11.6 billion for Florida and other storm-struck states. Some $6.5 billion of the money was for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the aid it provides individuals and state and local governments.

The bill also included money for small business loans and repairs to damaged military facilities, veterans hospitals and parks.

An additional $2.9 billion was for farmers and ranchers hurt by drought, floods and other harsh conditions.

Bowing to demands from House conservatives and GOP leaders, the farm aid was supposed to be financed by cutting a program that pays farmers to conserve their lands. But the reductions could be restored before they take effect later this decade.

Even so, Democrats complained of a double standard because to pay for the hurricane aid, the government will borrow money, driving up the deficit.

"The message this House is sending is clear: The folks who provide the nation's food and fiber who happen to live outside the politically important Florida are in a separate and lower class," said Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas.