WASHINGTON — To hear Democrats tell it, thousands of Americans desperately await disaster relief while Republicans play politics with the bill to provide it. Republicans contend aid is already flowing - the president is holding up the rest to keep his right to shut down the government in the event of a budget impasse.
The argument over the disaster-relief bill has become the most partisan conflict in Washington this year. President Clinton has urged passage of a relief bill, but vowed to veto the version passed by the Republican Congress last week.
Both are right about the relief: The Federal Emergency Management Agency is providing flood victims with temporary housing. But two provisions in the bill - grants to rebuild infrastructure and buy out families living in flood plains, and funds to replace drowned livestock - are hostage to partisan maneuvering on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Midwestern mayors point out they have little time to rebuild before snow falls again in October. "We have no money in the pipeline," says Pat Owens, mayor of hard-hit Grand Forks, N.D. "We are just working on a prayer right now and hoping that it's going to come."
The argument is over two contentious provisions Republicans have added to the bill. The first would automatically fund the government at last year's levels for a year, should the budget process hit a stalemate in October. The measure is meant to avoid a repeat of the government shutdowns of 1995-96.
The second would prevent the Census Bureau from using "sampling," a polling technique, in the 2000 census. The bureau wants to use sampling to obtain a more accurate count in inner-city and rural areas, many of which have large numbers of ethnic minorities. Republican officials, who allege the process is unreliable, worry the results could jeopardize 24 to 26 House seats, enough to return control to the Democrats.
Democrats wanted Congress to stay in session over the weekend to deal with the matter. Republicans, trying to increase pressure on the president to sign, left town for the weekend and delayed sending Mr. Clinton the bill. Last reports said it would arrive on his desk today.
Seeking to win the public-opinion war, Democrats are invoking last year's government closures. "Shutdown seems to be part of their operations," says Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Republicans retort that the president is hypocritical for calling disaster aid urgent, then threatening to veto the bill. "He has a simple choice," says Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho. "He can choose the people or he can play party politics."
IN fact, both sides are up to their ears in party politics. The GOP wants to show it has no interest in another shutdown, which almost cost it control of the House of Representatives. Clinton opposes the "automatic continuing resolution," as it would mean lower funding levels than the budget deal just negotiated. He'd also lose leverage in disagreements that could arise over implementation of the deal in bills now in Congress.
If Clinton vetoes the bill, Congress could:
* Remove the offending provisions, so that Clinton signs a "clean" version.
* Send the president a bill for just the disaster aid. The current bill contains funds for welfare programs and the Bosnia mission, in addition to the language in dispute.
* Send the bill back to Clinton with compromise language on both provisions that he'll sign.
* Republicans could sit on the bill, or simply send it back to the president, hoping to increase the pressure on him to meet them halfway.
That could lead to total stalemate, since Senate Democrats are vowing to let nothing move through Congress until the issue is settled. Senator Daschle estimates it would take a week to 10 days to send the president a new bill.