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Disaster relief war of words continues, no sign of relief

House leaders say they sent a strong, “bipartisan” message to President Bush that U.S. farmers still need disaster relief to help them recover from hurricanes, floods, droughts and freezes in 2005 and 2006.

But the president may need more convincing as he waits for Senate leaders to decide how they will handle the Iraq war emergency supplemental appropriations bill and disaster assistance bill the president vetoed earlier this month.

House Democrats decided to separate their disaster bill from the Iraq war supplemental bill to try to pressure the administration. The former, identical to the language in the bill vetoed by the president, passed the House by a vote of 302-120.

The total included more than enough Republicans to override a veto. But administration officials gave little sign they’re willing to throw in the towel just yet. The Office of Management and Budget issued a Statement of Administration Policy listing a number of reasons it would oppose the measure.

The day the House voted, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns devoted the first several minutes of a press briefing at the World Agricultural Forum’s World Congress in St. Louis to outlining the administration’s opposition to the disaster bill.

The 2002 farm bill, he said, provided a “generous” safety net that was designed to eliminate the need for ad hoc disaster assistance. “So the administration is taking the position that we need offsets for the $3.5 billion in the bill. But Congress is pushing ahead without them.”

Johanns also listed disaster assistance USDA has provided in the last two years, aid some say has been too narrowly targeted or insufficient to address disaster victim’s needs. And he repeated claims the farm economy is “strong.”

Farm groups responded to the SAP with outrage. The American Corn Growers said it was “shocked and appalled” by the callousness of the White House. “It is hard to understand why, during a week that has seen levees burst, flooding of farms, homes and rural towns, huge sections of Georgia burning, people in Greensburg, Kans., bury their dead, the president has stated his intent to veto disaster legislation,” said the ACGA’s Larry Mitchell.

Others questioned how much longer farmers can hang on without assistance. “They’re arguing over cutting subsidies for so-called fat-cat farmers,” an Extension specialist said. “Meanwhile, I’m down here visiting with farmers going out of business right and left. We see a strange disconnect between perception and reality.

“So many farmers are telling me this is it. If there’s no help coming, they’re out of farming. Before the (Easter) freeze hit, crops were looking so good it would have bailed some struggling farmers out. Now that hope is gone, and they are probably gone too.”

Johanns was asked about reports USDA has $7.2 billion in unspent funds that could be used for disaster assistance. “I’ve not found it,” he said. “I wish someone would come in and say, ‘Mike, you have $7.2 billion you didn’t know you had.’ But no one has.”

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