Campaign trails wend through halls of Congress

Lawmakers trying to get elected push last-minute bills to help constituents, from hurricane relief to tobacco buyouts.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

North Carolinians have until Nov. 2 to decide if they want Democrat Erskine Bowles to be their next US senator, but the former Clinton chief of staff isn't waiting on a vote to start working the Senate on their behalf.

"I've done what any representative of North Carolina ought to do: I've been up here fighting for our farmers," he said, after meeting with 24 senators on Wednesday - and having "substantive talks with all of them."

The second-time candidate hopes to persuade Senate Democrats to back a $10 billion tobacco buyout in a corporate tax bill that would help North Carolina growers. It could also help Democrats win back control of the Senate, if Mr. Bowles beats five-term GOP Rep. Richard Burr in the November race, which is currently a dead heat. Democrats need to pick up two seats to take back the Senate.

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It's a sign of how key races are influencing what's going on in the last, frantic days of the 108th Congress.

From the tobacco buyout to emergency relief for Florida hurricanes and Midwest drought, the last legislative vehicles out the door are loaded with items targeted to the needs of battleground states or their embattled lawmakers.

"It's not unprecedented, but this is such a close race for both the House and the Senate that congressional action can actually have an impact," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "Potentially we're talking about a few thousand votes in perhaps a half a dozen states deciding the United States Senate, and as we learned in 2000, the same number of votes or fewer can decide the presidency,"

One of the fights most closely calibrated to electoral politics is the dispute over hurricane and drought relief. Four hurricanes have bashed the key battleground state of Florida since August, while many solid Republican states in the Midwest have weathered a drought for the past three years. Legislating over this issue in the House tracks a key close race in the new 19th district of Texas.

With the support of the House GOP leadership, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R) of Texas took the lead in sponsoring a $3 billion drought package that was added to a $10.9 billion 2004 supplemental bill for hurricane relief. Drought aid is highly sensitive on the eve of this year's elections, especially in farm states. The plan passed the House unanimously Wednesday night.

Moreover, the decision to give pride of authorship to a freshman, especially one who has been in the House for only 16 months, was unusual. It boosts visibility for the newcomer as he heads into a vote against one of the last powerful Southern Democrats in the House, 13-term Rep. Charles Stenholm.

The Neugebauer plan funds hurricane relief out of emergency spending, but requires offsets in the Conservation Security Program to pay for drought aid. A competing plan by Mr. Stenholm, the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, was blocked from a floor vote. The Stenholm plan would have funded both hurricane and drought relief out of emergency spending, which requires no offsets.

"How on earth can you give compensation to victims of hurricanes and then deny it to people who haven't had any rain for three years? Let's treat all disasters fairly," said Stenholm on Wednesday. He claims he had the votes to pass the plan, had it been allowed on the floor for a vote. Stenholm was a target to be eliminated in the 2003 redistricting plan drawn up by the GOP-controlled Texas legislature, and backed by House majority leader Tom DeLay, also of Texas.

(On Wednesday, the House Ethics Committee released a public admonishment of Mr. DeLay for asking the Federal Aviation Administration and the Justice Department to track down Texas state House Democrats who fled the state to avoid a vote on the redistricting plan in May 2003.)

The dispute over how to fund hurricane and drought relief now moves to the Senate, where Democrats are threatening to oppose the House approach. The outcome, to be resolved as early as Friday, could affect races across the Midwest.

"Why should farmers in Florida whose citrus got hit by a hurricane get emergency money, and farmers in the Midwest have to take it out of another pocket? A disaster is a disaster," says Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, the ranking member on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee. Senator Harkin helped create the conservation program as part of the 2002 farm bill.

"I see it as having a big electoral impact, especially in Colorado, South Dakota and North Dakota. If they take [the offsets] out of conservation money, that hits Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa," he adds.

But the legislative vehicle with the most sway in local races could be the $140 billion corporate tax package, which faces a filibuster in the Senate over the tobacco buyout.

The Senate version of the plan included authorizing the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products - a provision strongly opposed by the tobacco industry.

"That bill would never have passed the Senate without the FDA provision. The system is broken," says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, having heard that the House-Senate conference on the corporate tax bill had eliminated that Senate provision. He also opposes the bill because "it is laden with pork."

Some of that pork could make a difference on Nov. 2. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, facing a close race against former Rep. John Thune, has promised to deliver tax benefits for ethanol producers, which are included in the bill. Failure to deliver could hurt him in November.

"There is a disadvantage to being an incumbent, because failure to deliver such provisions works against incumbents more than candidates," says Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

But the Bowles move is "terrifically interesting and probably a reasonably effective campaign tactic," he adds. "He is trying to underscore that [his rival, Rep. Richard] Burr is more captured by his ideology than taking care of his constituents. It could make a difference because there has been so much publicity attached to the compromise."

Democrats say that the tobacco buyout alone could be enough to win them the North Carolina seat.

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