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House panel approves disaster program

The amount keeps shrinking, but Congress is still trying to pass a comprehensive disaster bill that would provide aid to farmers and ranchers hit by adverse weather conditions over the last two years.

The House Appropriations Committee voted March 15 to include $3.8 billion for agricultural disaster relief in a $124.1-billion supplemental spending bill that is aimed mostly at keeping the war going in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The bill could face a veto threat from President Bush because of the administration’s insistence that Congress must offset any disaster relief spending by cuts in other programs. The supplemental bill also contains language extending the Milk Income Loss Contract for 13 months, but no offsets.

“It’s not as much as we’ve been seeking, but it would provide some help for our farmers,” said Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Peterson had asked for $4.3 billion, which was down from the $6.5 billion congressional Democrats sought last year.

“Farmers can choose which of the years — 2005 or 2006 — they want losses to be covered in. The disaster bill would also cover the blizzards in Colorado and the freeze damage in California in the last few months.”

He said the disaster relief program would operate as it has in previous years if it passes muster in the House and Senate and is signed by the president. The bill would cover losses that exceed 35 percent of a producer’s normal yield at two-thirds of the average commodity price. It would also contain compensation for livestock losses.

The Appropriations Committee also approved $48 million for “stabilizing payment delivery systems of the Farm Service Agency,” which will administer the disaster program. USDA officials have complained that the agency’s computer equipment needs replacing so that county FSA offices can communicate with each other.

Peterson and other House Democrats had proposed a plan in early March to provide $4.3 billion for crop and livestock losses since a series of floods and droughts hit different areas of the United States.

Senate Democrats have passed several versions of disaster assistance bills since the fall of 2005 but ran up against White House opposition. USDA officials have been quoted as saying they thought the legislation was unnecessary given the farm program payments made to farmers under the 2002 farm bill.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who now chairs the Senate Budget Committee, has pledged to renew his fight to enact such legislation in the current session of Congress.

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