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Drought relief for farmers delayed

Postponement may turn into political football

WASHINGTON — Drought-stricken Western farmers will have to wait a while longer for a $3 billion relief package.

The House and Senate are unlikely to resolve differences — primarily, who picks up the tab — before lawmakers head off to home districts to resume campaigning, said Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah.

"We will address it in an omnibus bill," Bennett assured, "but we won't be able to do it this week."

And it won't happen before the election, even though lawmakers will be working between now and then to hammer out a compromise before the inevitable lame-duck session later in November.

Utah is in its sixth year of drought. Water levels at lakes like Lake Powell are at their lowest. And many farmers are under pressure to sell their grazing rights to the no-grazing environmental groups because they can't get enough water to their crops to feed their cows. Other farmers are leaving their land fallow until there's more water. In the meantime, water users who aren't using their water rights for more than five years must notify the Utah Division of Natural Resources to file an application so they won't lose their water rights during this drought.

And the failure by Congress to pass the relief — it is part of a larger appropriations bill that Congress has failed to enact — is already becoming fodder for the upcoming elections.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who faces a tough re-election bid in his home state of South Dakota, is blaming Republicans for failing to pass financial relief for farmers.

But there is also suspicion in some quarters that Republicans did not want the farm aid to pass, fearing Daschle would take credit.

"If it were all about politics, it would be done immediately," Bennett said. "He (Daschle) is already starting to make political hay" that Congress has not passed the drought relief.

At issue is how to pay for the relief. It is currently part of a budget found in the Senate version of a bill to pay for the Department of Homeland Security. And there is some support for attaching it to the financial relief for victims of three Florida hurricanes. (President Bush has asked for $7 billion for hurricane relief.)

"A disaster is a disaster is a disaster, and everybody ought to be willing to help victims of a disaster," Daschle told Gannett News Service. "It's not just Florida. It's not just South Dakota."

Bennett said the disagreement between the House and Senate is over how the relief is funded. If it is declared a disaster, it is just paid for. But many in the House want to cut other farm programs.

Contributing: Jerry D. Spangler; Associated Press; E-mail: