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Discharge petition drive fails to force vote on disaster help

Supporters of a discharge petition came up about 20 signatures short of the number needed to force House leaders to bring long-awaited disaster assistance legislation up for debate and a floor vote.

A total of 198 House members signed the petition in the hours before the House recessed to return to the campaign trail on Sept. 29. Supporters needed 218 votes — a majority — to bring the measure sponsored by Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., to the floor.

“I am disappointed that House Republican leaders failed to stand up for our farmers and ranchers who are suffering and struggling to cope with the impact of disaster on their operations,” said Peterson, ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.

“Now these farm communities will have to wait at least until mid-November before Congress could bring up disaster assistance.”

Congress is expected to return to Washington for a lame duck session after the Nov. 7 mid-term elections because of the fiscal 2007 appropriations bills and other legislative issues that have not been resolved.

The discharge petition, which was introduced by Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., will remain available during the session for members to sign. Peterson said supporters of agriculture disaster assistance are optimistic that relief legislation will be considered after the elections.

“We are disappointed that it wasn't addressed this week, but we certainly will not give up on the fight to get disaster assistance out to our farmers and ranchers,” Peterson said.

“We are going to keep reaching out to Republicans and Democrats from across the country to be sure that we get a deal that will keep our rural communities afloat as they recover from disaster.”

The Congress had been dealing with the agriculture disaster assistance issue since last year when the House Agriculture Committee and the House Appropriations Committee voted down amendments that would have provided payments to farmers who lost at least 35 percent of their crop to weather disasters in 2005 or 2006.

Earlier this year, the House Democratic leadership sent a letter to the speaker of the House and House majority leader, asking them to allow debate and a vote on agriculture disaster assistance legislation before Congress recessed. When they did not respond, Barrow introduced a discharge petition.

A coalition of more than 30 farm and allied organizations, including the National Farmers Union, American Farm Bureau Federation, Independent Community Bankers of America and others have written to members of Congress several times urging them to support agriculture disaster assistance and to sign the discharge petition.

The Senate has passed similar legislation, but the language was removed from an emergency supplemental appropriations bill by a House-Senate conference committee after President Bush threatened to veto the measure.

Farm-state senators tried to force a vote on a stripped version of their disaster assistance legislation just before the Sept. 29 recess but were also unsuccessful.

Peterson said the need for disaster assistance is clear. Natural disasters including hurricanes, floods, droughts, wildfires, heat waves and other weather-related events caused serious damage to crops and livestock in 2005 and 2006.

USDA has declared more than 71 percent of all U.S. counties primary or contiguous disaster areas this year. In 2005, 78 percent of counties were primary or contiguous disaster areas due to floods, droughts or the after-affects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“Farmers and ranchers in these communities are struggling and may not be able to stay in business without disaster assistance,” said Peterson.

Members of Congress began to sign the discharge petition on the night of Sept. 25. Before Congress recessed, 195 Democrats, two Republicans and one Independent had signed the petition.

“It has won the support of members of Congress from across the country, many who come from districts that have not experienced agriculture disaster but who believe that Congress should have an open and fair debate about what we should do to help farmers and ranchers dealing with the aftermath of disasters,” he said.

Reps. Barrow and Peterson, along with Rural Working Group co-chairs Rep. Bob Etheridge of North Carolina and Rep. Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota have resolved not to give up on agriculture disaster assistance this year.

“During the farm crisis of the 1980s, I cut a record called, ‘Just Don't Do Nuthin'.’ I think we're going to have to dust off that old LP and play it for the Republican leadership when we get back to Washington in November because we've got work to do on this disaster issue,” said Peterson.

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