With the national economy booming, lawmakers have begun to focus on one of the few places in the country where times are bad: the Northern Plains, where wheat and livestock prices have plunged and many farmers are desperate.
Sen. Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader, said that the situation on the farms in his state, South Dakota, was the direst in 15 years and worsening. "We've got to take action now," he said. "It must be done this summer."Republicans and Democrats have each weighed in with proposals to meet what both sides describe as a crisis involving an important election-year constituency, but they are addressing the situation from entirely different angles.
Republicans like Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Agriculture Committee, favor a free-market agriculture policy and believe the government can best help farmers by staying out of their hair and promoting export markets for their products.
That was the basis of the legislation approved by the Senate on Thursday to exempt food exports from the sanctions the United States imposed on India and Pakistan after those countries conducted nuclear tests. The House Republican leadership has promised to follow suit in time for U.S. farmers to bid Wednesday on a large Pakistani order for wheat.
Democrats like Daschle believe that it is more important for the government to restore some government farm subsidies that were developed in the New Deal and repealed by the Republican Congress in the 1996 farm bill.
President Clinton plans to meet with Democratic senators early this week to discuss the situation. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said that the administration would announce its response to the farm problem in the next week or two.
Generally, politicians from the same state but different parties vote alike on questions that are of primarily local concern. But in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Montana and Washington - states with mounting trouble on the farms and with one Republican and one Democratic senator each - the senators are walking the party lines and taking opposing positions on farm policy.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, described the division this way: "They have great confidence in Washington bureaucrats. We have confidence in Iowa farmers to manage their own destiny."