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Column: Drought relief likely to be hot issue in October

Farm-state senators struck out in their first attempt to pass a new emergency assistance bill when Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., attempted to attach it to a port security bill. But, even if Republicans continue to bottle up the legislation, they are likely to hear plenty about it when they return to the campaign trail for the Nov. 7 elections.

Nelson’s amendment failed to get a vote on Sept. 14 after Republicans said it wasn’t germane to the port security bill. Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Nelson and Conrad Burns, R-Mont., say they will keep trying to find a way to pass the measure before Congress recesses on Sept. 28.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi gave Republicans a taste of what might be in store for them when she issued called on Republican leaders to pass comprehensive agriculture disaster relief before Sept. 28.

“Disaster assistance to compensate farmers and ranchers for the weather-related losses they sustain will strengthen the agriculture economy and our nation’s economy,” she said. “This isn’t a partisan issue, but we need Republicans to join with us to provide our farmers and ranchers with the help they so desperately need.”

Although some observers said USDA’s more optimistic Sept. 1 crop report seemed to negate the need for the $6.5 billion disaster relief package, some Republican House members were adding their voices to the call for the House leadership to act.

Texas Republican Reps. Henry Bonilla, chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee; Mike Conaway; and Randy Neugebauer joined a group of House and Senate members at a press conference in which speakers addressed the need for disaster assistance in Texas and the Plains states.

USDA’s latest crop production report estimates that 2.2 million or 35 percent of the cotton acres Texas farmers planted last spring have been abandoned due to hailstorms or drought conditions. Much of that land is in the Rio Grande Valley and on the High Plains.

Leaders from the American Farm Bureau, National Farmers Union, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Grain Sorghum Producers and the National Corn Growers Association joined the congressmen.

“The time for this assistance is now,” Bonilla said. “Our nation was founded on the economic backbone of the agricultural industry. We must provide our producers with an adequate safety net to ensure their survival. As I travel my district it is amazing to see the resilience of our producers in the face of these natural disasters. However, while farmers and ranchers have planned for bad days as well as good, producers can never be fully prepared for a prolonged drought and other persistent natural catastrophes.”

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has announced USDA will provide $780 million in disaster assistance for farmers affected by drought, floods and other weather problems. But $700 million of that will come from accelerated counter-cyclical payments. The secretary has said Congress should wait until after the 2006 crop year before assessing the need for additional help.

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