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Agreement may move disaster help a step closer

The measure must still pass muster in the House where leaders have not looked favorably on such legislation. But some say House leaders may be more agreeable after the White House dropped its insistence on offsets in farm bill spending for any disaster aid.

The proposal, drafted by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the new chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, would provide farmers with an additional payment of 42.25 percent of the direct payment contained in the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.

It would also include additional disaster assistance for fruit and vegetable, sugarcane and sugar beet and livestock producers who do not receive direct payments under the new farm bill.

The measure relies on supplemental direct payments for the lion’s share of aid because “that’s the fastest way we can get help to farmers,” said a Senate Agriculture Committee staff member.

“Some of the other proposals contain more funding,” he said. “But they will also require signup and that aid recipients meet some kind of qualifying threshold like a 35 percent loss. Most farmers already receive a direct payment, so USDA can simply look at that payment, figure 42.25 percent of that and send them a check.”

While Senate leaders weren’t saying much, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback broke the news of an agreement when he told reporters that the White House had signed off on the $3.1 billion in the omnibus spending bill that the Senate Appropriations Committee began considering on Jan. 16.

Besides a supplemental direct payment, the package reportedly would include $100 million for fruit and vegetable producers, $50 million for cottonseed producers and first handlers and help for rice and sugarcane growers hammered by the two hurricane/tropical storms that hit the lower Mid-South last fall.

It would also provide $10 million for lower Rio Grande Valley producers who could not water their crops when Mexico failed to honor an agreement to provide water to the region.

The $3.1 billion for disaster assistance would come from a 1-percent cut in all 11 of the spending bills that Congress has yet to pass for the 2003 fiscal year. But most of that would be accomplished by “reductions in the amount of increases that had been planned,” the Senate Ag Committee staff member said.

Earlier, Sen. Cochran, who finally became chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee after Democrats and Republicans agreed on how to divide funding among committee staffs, had said he was opposed to offsets in farm program spending for disaster funding.

Cochran had said the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry would try to find a way to get federal disaster aid to the nation’s farmers despite the White House position on budget offsets. “I think the Senate will respond with some amount of aid,” he noted. “Farmers need help.”

He said he was sympathetic to the president’s wishes on offsets, but that the funding could come from money saved when higher soybean and grain prices negated the need for loan deficiency payments for those crops.

The new ag committee chairman also rejected legislation that was expected to be offered by Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel that would impose drastically lower payment limits on farm program benefits and apply the “savings” to disaster assistance.

Hagel’s proposal supposedly would limit an individual to $225,000 in farm payments no matter how many entities he operates. Separate payment limits for a spouse would go away, and USDA would have to review farm programs and eliminate any payment limit “loopholes.”

“I will work hard to see this legislation is not enacted by the Senate,” Cochran said. He said any such measure would “treat producers in Southern states unfairly.”

While the two-year-old logjam on disaster assistance may finally be breaking, the $3.1 billion is by no means a certainty. The Senate Appropriations Committee was expected to take up the proposal either later today or tomorrow.

As chairman of the Senate Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee, Cochran was expected to lead the fight for his disaster assistance proposal. But most observers expect Hagel, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and other proponents of lower payment limits to offer additional amendments when the omnibus spending bill reaches the Senate floor.

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