|Candidates Focus on Drought Aid, Social Security|
Sept. 16, 2002 -- Despite being one of the most critical senate campaigns in the country this year, the South Dakota campaign continues to focus on issues back home, namely drought relief and Social Security.
Early in September, the Senate passed a $6 billion proposal that was aimed at providing assistance for farmers and ranchers hit hard by a drought in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic.
Last Friday, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) called on U.S. Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) to take up the legislation in the House.
Daschle, who could be demoted to minority leader if Thune defeats fellow South Dakotan Tim Johnson in the senate seat race, said it was time for Thune to act.
"That's the most important thing that can be done," Daschle said. "And the sooner [Thune] can provide some leadership... the sooner we can get this to the president's desk."
Republicans have criticized the bill saying it is loaded with pork barrel spending on unnecessary projects.
Thune has not said he would push the Daschle proposal, but has come up with a slightly smaller bill that offers $5.6 billion in drought aid.
Thune's drought relief plan, which he says is more likely to win support in the House and from the administration, would take money from the recently passed farm bill instead of spending new money for aid. Thune told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that he hoped passage of the larger Daschle package would prompt White House officials to back his proposal.
"I hope the vote in the Senate will build a fire under the administration," he said.
Both candidates have also taken aim at Social Security proposals, expressing opposition to any move to privatize the system. At the same time, both have questioned his opponent's commitment to the program.
Sen. Johnson has accused Thune of adopting the National Republican Congressional Committee's "Protecting Social Security" white paper that recommends candidates say they are opposed to privatizing the program but to add "I am for examining 'the concept' of personal retirement accounts." Johnson also accuses Thune of backing the formation of a commission that later recommended limiting benefits and raising the retirement eligibility age.
Thune denounced the claim, saying it was unfair to blame him for the findings of a commission over which he had no oversight.
"That is the most bizarre statement, a flat out lie. The whole question of a commission to cut benefits is a stretch that I can't even believe," Thune said. At the same time the Thune campaign has come out with an ad showing Johnson in a 1996 debate saying he would consider more private investment of program funds.
The ad shows Johnson saying, "I think that the Social Security surplus funds need to be transitioned more into investments in the private sector."
Johnson responded saying he has never endorsed any proposal either during his years in the House, nor his first term as U.S. Senator.
"I have never voted to invest money in the stock market and never will," the Sioux Falls Argus Leader quoted Johnson as saying.