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Disaster bill united, divided Senate, House members

Many Senate and House members wanted to pass disaster assistance legislation before the 109th Congress adjourned, but they couldn’t figure out how to do it, especially after leaders said they would not take up a separate fiscal 2007 agricultural appropriations bill.

As a result, the Senate fell three votes short of approving an amendment offered by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., which would have extended disaster assistance benefits to farmers who suffered losses due to drought and other weather problems in 2006. Some Mid-South senators voted against the amendment.

The latter could take some comfort in the fact the vote was largely symbolic since the ag appropriations bill Conrad’s measure was supposed to amend got left on the cutting room floor after the House and Senate voted to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government running through Feb. 15.

Congress is expected to take up the agricultural appropriations and eight other separate spending bills that the 109th Congress failed to act on when the 110th Congress meets in January.

The complicated nature of the disaster aid bill was illustrated by the fact that senators didn’t actually take up Conrad’s amendment but voted instead on a motion to waive the budget rules so that it could be considered an emergency spending measure. Sixty votes were required to waive the rule.

Sen. Conrad’s disaster assistance amendment, the third he had offered in 2006, would have changed the disaster assistance provisions currently in the fiscal 2007 agriculture appropriations bill that would have provided aid for producers who suffered weather-related yield and quality losses for 2005 crops.

The latter also directed USDA to issue a supplemental direct payment equal to 30 percent of a producer’s normal payment rate in 2005. The supplemental payment would provide much-needed assistance to producers who experienced increased costs and yield losses that do not meet a 35 percent loss threshold.

Sen. Conrad’s substitute amendment retained the 2005 crop loss disaster provision and added a 2006 crop loss provision. Producers could receive benefits for qualifying losses for 2005 and 2006. The loss threshold would be 35 percent and the payment rate 45 percent of their crop’s target price.

The Conrad provision also retained a supplemental direct payment for producers. To qualify, though, producers would have to demonstrate a net income loss between 2004 and 2005 using a procedure to be established by the secretary of agriculture. The supplemental direct payment would be limited to the lesser of the actual proven net income loss or $10,000 per person.

Several senators, including Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, Democrats from Arkansas, told their colleagues the 30 percent supplemental payment approved by the Appropriations Committee in the agricultural appropriations bill was critically important to producers who experienced significant cost increases, low prices and “shallow” yield losses of less than 35 percent.

Lincoln and Pryor asked its sponsors to modify the amendment to add 2006 loss coverage to the existing provisions which cover 2005 crop losses and provide a 30 percent supplemental direct payment. The benefits could be prorated to meet budget targets if necessary.

But the senators were unable to reach an agreement on the modification due to concerns about the increased budget exposure of the supplemental payment.

“Some senators supported the waiver and the amendment because it would add coverage for 2005 crop losses,” said one Washington analyst. “Others were concerned that the amendment dropped the 30 percent supplemental payment which was important to their constituents and replaced it with a new income-tested provision.

Lincoln and Pryor and Sens. David Vitter, R-La.; John Cronyn, R-Texas; and Trent Lott, R-Miss., voted against the amendment, in part, due to concerns about the potential precedent-setting income test to qualify for disaster assistance and the failure to keep the supplemental direct payment in the legislation.

“An analysis of the final vote confirms that in the absence of a unified message and the complicated procedural situation, Senators made different decisions for different reasons. As a result, agriculture may have appeared unnecessarily divided just before beginning work on new farm legislation,” the analyst said.

On the opposite side of the debate, Sens. Jud Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the Budget Committee, and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said the amendment was being offered at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons.

“I do feel it is uniquely ironic that the first amendment offered after the election would increase the debt of this country by $4.9 billion, that it would abandon the budget and essentially say we should spend additional funds and pass those costs on to our children.”

He criticized Democratic leaders such as Conrad, who will replace Gregg as chairman of the Budget Committee in the new Congress, for wanting to spend $4.9 billion when “we do not have an emergency, which is declared in the agricultural community, and which funds are not even emergency-related.”

But other Republican lawmakers, including Sens. Saxby Chambliss, chairman of the Agriculture Committee, and Thad Cochran, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said they would support disaster legislation when it comes up in the new Congress.

House Republicans who have supported disaster assistance measures also appeared to be prepared to continue the fight to pass the legislation.

“From wild fires to severe drought, the 2006 crop year wreaked havoc on farms and ranches throughout West Texas and the Big Country,” said Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas. “The cost of the crop and livestock losses in Texas topped $4 billion, nearly doubling the previous record.”

Neugebauer said the state’s losses on cotton alone totaled more than $1 billion and the 2006 winter wheat crop was the smallest since 1971. He noted he joined with other House and Senate members in working toward a disaster assistance package that could help offset 2006 losses.

“Unfortunately, no such package will be voted on this year. This news is a like a lump of coal in the Christmas stocking for those producers who are short on crop and long on bills.”

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