President Bush, Tom Daschle sees your $75.3 billion and raises you $4 billion. That's the kind of political high stakes poker Republicans and Democrats are into nowadays in their fight for control of Washington.
Last month, Bush signed what everyone agrees was one of the most bloated and wasteful agriculture bills in recent memory. Defending the president from criticism by fiscal conservatives, White House political adviser Karl Rove and White House legislative aide Nick Calio pointed to the midterm elections and all the Midwest Senate and House seats up for grabs.
"The chance to knock off some Democrats like Paul Wellstone and to help some Republicans up for re-election was the only satisfaction any of us could gain from that pork-laden bill," says a Republican House member.
And one of the key states Bush and Rove and company targeted with the farm bill was cattle-rich South Dakota, where Democrat Sen. Tim Johnson is in a tough re-election bid against popular Republican Rep. John Thune.
The White House wants to knock off Johnson because it would help Republicans in the fight to control the Senate, and because it would be embarrassing to Johnson's fellow South Dakotan, Senate leader Tom Daschle, albeit indirectly.
"The White House told us not to worry about fighting for a veto, to let the bill go," says a Senate Agriculture Committee staffer. "They looked at all of those blue states on the map and saw pickups through pork."
But it's doubtful, unless President Bush and John Thune actually wheel the cash in on John Deeres, that South Dakotans will care where the money came from. And thanks to some clever politicking by Daschle, it now appears South Dakotans may blame the White House for not giving them enough money.
That's because on Tuesday, Daschle very publicly asked the White House for $4 billion in emergency disaster relief funds for water-parched South Dakota. "Senator Daschle spoke to several ranchers back home and they say they are in dire need of drought relief," says a Democratic Senate leadership aide.
Several ranchers? That's it? "It's anecdotal, but everyone knows the state is dealing with drought conditions there. This money is desperately needed."
Yes, for political feed. The problem the White House has is that it built in plenty of cash for such emergencies in the 2002 Farm Bill. According to a White House legislative affairs staffer, the White House is of the opinion that the Senate can target as much of the $75 billion it wants to South Dakota, but mostly at the cost of another state's farm budget, say, California, Arkansas or Texas.
"If Senator Daschle wants $4 billion for drought relief, he should draw it from the emergency funding provisions of the farm bill," says the White House aide. "That's why we gave them the money. It should be more than enough to cover everyone's concerns. They don't need emergency funding. It's already there, thanks to the forward-looking vision of President Bush."
But the Republican National Committee is concerned that the headlines in South Dakota newspapers will read: "Daschle asks for drought relief, White House says, 'No.'"
"It plays a bit into Daschle's hand," says a senior RNC staffer. "Here he is , going to the mat for constituents, while Bush isn't. It makes it tougher for the president to go into South Dakota on a campaign swing, even if he budgeted for drought relief before it was even an issue."
But another White House aide in looking at this cut through to a point lost by many, including the Prowler. "If Tom Daschle really cared that much about Tim Johnson and his re-election, then why didn't Daschle let Johnson make the emergency appeal so he'd look better in the eyes of the voters back home?"
No one in Daschle's office would comment. But a staffer on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee says that the idea of having Johnson float the emergency appeal was raised in a Senate leadership meeting, but nixed by Daschle. "He felt it was the kind of request that should come from the senior senator from the state," says the DSCC staffer.
Late Tuesday night, the House Ways and Means Committee passed the $350 billion, 10-year prescription drug benefit plan floated by Hill Republicans and by the White House. Republican Whip Tom DeLay predicted the bill would successfully pass through the House.
Yet, even though passage by the House seems assured, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt is planning on busing into Washington seniors who've taken bus trips to Canada to buy their medications. The AFL-CIO is planning a similar field trip for seniors to Florida. Why put the oldsters through this kind of travel for a bill that is certain to win House approval?
"To make a point that Republicans don't care about seniors," says a House Democratic leadership staffer. "These folks would still have to ride a bus to Canada if the Bush plan passed. We're not wasting their time."
When informed that the AFL-CIO was doing a similar media event in Florida, the House staffer told the Prowler that the AFL-CIO had also helped organize and finance the Gephardt event. "But the union isn't officially involved in this Washington event."
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