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Conrad slowdown forces disaster assistance promise

If anyone had any doubts about how serious Sen. Kent Conrad considers disaster assistance legislation, those doubts were dispelled when the North Dakota Democrat practically shut down the Senate for three days.

The slowdown forced Senate leaders to agree to bring up the FY2007 agricultural appropriations bill for debate and to promise Conrad his disaster assistance amendment will get a vote when the Senate returns from Thanksgiving recess on Dec. 4.

“I have spent the last three days on the Senate floor insisting on an opportunity to offer my agriculture disaster bill,” Conrad said before the recess. “The outgoing Republican majority in Congress must not be allowed to turn away from farmers and ranchers who are suffering through the third-worst drought in our nation’s history.”

Conrad and fellow North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan initiated the slowdown after Senate leaders failed to honor a commitment to bring up the FY 2007 agricultural appropriations bill so that Conrad could introduce his disaster assistance legislation on Nov. 15.

Senate leaders had planned to and did pass a continuing resolution to keep the government operating through Dec. 8 without addressing individual appropriations bill. But Conrad forced them to also begin debate on the agricultural appropriations legislation.

“Two days ago I went to the floor to offer disaster assistance, and we were denied an opportunity to vote,” Conrad told reporters. “I then entered into a slowdown of Senate business to make the point that we were not going to accept being denied a vote.

“I was promised the agricultural appropriations bill would be brought up yesterday, and I could offer an amendment at that time. Unfortunately, that did not happen. But this morning, I was promised we would turn to the agricultural appropriations bill and that I would be able to offer the first amendment.”

Speaking on the day the Senate began its recess, Nov. 16, Conrad said the Senate would not have time to debate and vote on the agricultural appropriations bill and his amendment that day.

“I anticipate that we will finish the debate and have a vote when we return in early December,” he said.

Conrad said he reduced the funding in his amendment from $4.9 billion to $4.5 billion due to White House opposition. The reduction means farmers who do not have federal crop insurance coverage will receive a smaller payment percentage than those who do.

“This wasn’t what I preferred, but it may help get the amendment passed,” he said. “Farmers who have crop insurance will receive a payment of 50 percent of the established price on losses in 2005 or 2006 exceeding 35 percent. Those who do not will receive a payment of less than 50 percent.”

Even if Conrad is successful in his quest for a vote, the disaster assistance amendment faces an uphill struggle in the lame duck session. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has said he will offer an amendment to delete all disaster assistance funding from the ag appropriations bill.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has also insisted that Congress should offset funding earmarked for disaster assistance with spending cuts in other agricultural programs.

If the amendment is defeated when Congress returns from recess, Conrad vowed to keep on fighting for the legislation. “The sooner we can pass the bill and send it to the president the better,” he noted. “But if it gets held over until January, we will continue the fight until we get it passed.”

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