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Assistance bill caught in Washington wrangle

After months of analysis and debate and votes in both the House and Senate, legislation granting a supplemental payment has become caught in a test of wills between the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House.

Earlier, the Senate passed legislation that would provide $7.4 billion in emergency assistance, including $5.5 billion that would have been enough for a FY 2001 supplemental Agricultural Market Transition Act or AMTA payment at 1999 rates.

On its way to passing the legislation, the Senate defeated by a vote of 52-48 a proposal by Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., ranking minority member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, to limit the assistance package to $5.5 billion, the amount contained in the House version of the legislation.

House members approved the $5.5 billion amount in early July after White House officials sent a letter to the House Agriculture Committee saying that President Bush would veto legislation that contained emergency assistance of more than the $5.5 billion figure.

Since then, White House budget officials have repeated that warning — as did the President in a meeting with the Republican leadership at the Capitol. He told those leaders that a $7.5 billion assistance bill would “be breaking the budget.”

Leaders in both parties have already begun the finger pointing over who’s at fault for failure to pass and send legislation to the President for his signature.

Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and author of the $7.5 billion assistance package, expressed frustration over the delays and what he called the Republican leadership’s refusal to compromise.

“The package we reported out of the Senate Ag Committee is in compliance with the budget resolution,” he said. “But now, it looks like the Republican leadership has chosen to hold up this critical bill rather than letting us get it into Congress.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., told reporters that he thought the president was misreading the gravity of the situation in farm country.

“Every single farm group in the nation has endorsed the senate version of the bill, including the full payment that they’ve been getting the last couple of years,” he noted. “If the president wants to take on not only the Democratic caucus, but every farm group in the nation, he has to make that decision.

“I can’t help but think that at the end of the day, the president is going to want to be supportive of an agricultural economy that’s in real crisis.”

But Rep. Larry Combest, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Texas, the ranking minority member, issued a statement accusing Daschle of engaging in a “shell game” to divert blame from the Senate for not finishing work on the assistance bill prior to the August recess.

“Close of business in early August has been scheduled since the beginning of the year,” they said. “Against this well-publicized early August deadline, the Senate has had the House-approved bill languishing for over a month. The Senate’s search for an excuse on a past-due bill must mean they fear going home to face the music from constituents.”

As Congress neared the scheduled Aug. 3 adjournment date, there were rumors that Sen. Lugar was preparing to offer another compromise amendment that would make it possible for the House and Senate to agree on a package without having to go to conference to resolve their differences.

Failing that, most observers say the bill will be delayed until Congress returns from recess in early September, which could delay the disbursement of the funds until the new fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

Such a delay would open the question of whether the supplemental AMTA payments would be permitted under the Fiscal Year 2002 appropriations legislation.


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