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Cuba, drug issues delay spending bill

The House passed the Fiscal Year 2001 agricultural appropriations bill conference report that contains $3.6 billion in disaster aid for farmers by a margin of 340 to 75. The Senate was expected to pass the measure soon after members were given a chance to speak on Cuban sanctions reform and prescription drug re-importation.

If the schedule holds up, the Senate was to vote on the $78 billion agricultural appropriations bill on Oct. 18 and send it to the president for his signature. The White House announced the president would sign the bill.

Under congressional rules, senators cannot amend a conference report, but they can vote to send the report back to the conference committee for reconsideration. Most observers do not think the opposition has enough votes to return the report to the House-Senate conference committee.

"Several senators have strong feelings about Cuban trade sanctions and drug re-importation," said a Senate staff member close to the negotiations. "It's an election year, and they wanted a chance to go on record on those two issues."

That was evident when Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott tried but failed to have the Senate pass the conference report on a unanimous consent motion on Oct. 12. When Democratic senators expressed their opposition, Lott scheduled time for debate and a vote on Oct. 18.

Some senators have also expressed concern about the level of disaster assistance in the bill, which includes about $1.6 billion for crop loss assistance, $490 million for assistance to livestock producers and $473 million for dairy assistance.

The Cuban sanctions issue also threatened to delay the House vote. But, after the House narrowly defeated an attempt to force reconsideration of the report, House members lined up to show their support of farmers and overwhelmingly passed the measure.

Although language in the appropriations bill would re-open trade between the United States and Cuba for the first time in 38 years, supporters of sanctions reform have been upset that the bill retains restrictions on travel to Cuba to promote new trade agreements.

Opponents of the drug re-importation language in the ag appropriations bill say it contains loopholes that would allow the major drug manufacturers to continue to keep drug prices at artificially high levels.

While most House members and a third of the Senate wanted to end the legislative session and return to the campaign trail as quickly as possible, observers said the delay in passing the ag appropriations bill should not cause any undue delays in farmers receiving disaster assistance.

"All the components are in place - the House has passed it, we think we have the votes in the Senate for passage and the president has said he will sign the bill," said Mark Keenum, chief of staff to Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss. "We just have to keep working on it."

Keenum said language authorizing the secretary of agriculture to have access to Commodity Credit Corp. funding for compensating farmers for this season's crop losses should also help USDA distribute aid to farmers sooner than in 1998 or 1999.

"The $3.6 billion in this bill is an estimate by the Congressional; Budget Office of how much will be required to help farmers get through the third straight year of disaster conditions," he said. "The last two years, Congress appropriated a specific amount for assistance, so the secretary had to pro-rate that amount among all eligible producers."

In 1999, as a result, farmers who suffered from drought or other weather problems received disaster payments equal to 69.8 percent of their loss. Payments for the 1998 losses were not issued until the following July because the secretary had to wait until all claims were filed before he could divide the available assistance among producers.

"Last year, if a farmer qualified for a loss of $10,000, for example, he received a payment for $7,000," said Keenum. "This year, if a farmer qualifies for a loss of $10,000, he should receive a payment for $10,000."

Keenum said the quality loss provision in the ag appropriations bill will also help producers who are being hit with discounts because of short staple or low grades due to this year's unusual weather patterns.

"A number of Mississippi growers went for weeks without a rain until their cotton started opening," he said. "Then, it rained. That caused some lint deterioration that will reduce their grades. This bill should help in that situation."

At press time, National Cotton Council staff members were meeting with USDA officials to provide suggestions on how to implement the quality loss language if the Senate passes the appropriations bill.

With the delays in the passage of the ag appropriations bill and other spending bills, Congress is now expected to adjourn on Oct. 20, two weeks after its earlier scheduled adjournment date of Oct. 6.

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