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Senate passes disaster aid amendment

After suffering a defeat on the floor of the Senate less than one week earlier, the amendment authored by Sen.. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), which needed 60 votes for passage, was approved Jan. 29 on a 62-33 vote. But at least one Mid-South senator called the vote a “partisan game” aimed at making Republicans look anti-farm.

Originally included in the Senate version of the House stimulus bill, H.R. 3090, the amendment provides $1.8 billion for emergency financial assistance to producers who suffered losses in their 2001 crops and $500 million for livestock producers with losses in counties designated as disaster areas. It also instructs the agriculture secretary to spend $220 million to purchase agricultural commodities that experienced low prices during the 2001 crop year for the school lunch program to help restore some measure of profitability.

Most farm organizations have been focusing on passing a new farm bill. Spokesman for the organizations have said they will seek passage of an economic emergency bill containing $7.35 billion in funding that was passed in last year’s agricultural appropriations bill if a new farm bill cannot be passed and signed by the president by spring.

The almost $2 billion agricultural aid package was included in the economic stimulus package, which stalled in the Senate last December. It was not, however, included in the stimulus bill currently being debated by the Senate.

To remedy that problem, Baucus, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee and wrote the disaster assistance language section of the stimulus package, offered the amendment to again include the disaster assistance.

“Sen. Daschle put together what he considered a bare bones economic stimulus package. The proposed legislation now includes only those consensus items with overwhelming support, and disaster assistance for agriculture was not included in that category,” Baucus says. “Sen. Daschle himself supports the measure, however.”

A Jan. 24 vote to override the Budget Act, and include the disaster assistance in the stimulus package, came up three votes short. Because only 90 Senators were present in the chamber at the time of the vote, supporters are hopeful a second vote would rubber-stamp the measure.

Shortly before the vote was taken, Baucus said, “We feel pretty confident we can get the 60 votes we need.”

Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, who voted in favor of Baucus’ amendment both times it was brought up for a vote, says, “Because of the extensive damage to agriculture in our state just before, and during, the harvest season, I think additional disaster assistance is justified,” Cochran says. “I hope the Senate will find a way to approve the Baucus amendment.”

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi voted against the measure, calling it a partisan measure aimed at casting a negative shadow on Republicans.

Lee Youngblood, press secretary for Sen. Lott, says, “Because a consensus couldn’t be reached on an ag bill prior to the holiday recess, the Democrats agreed to move on to the economic stimulus bill. Then, they broke their agreement by bringing up an agricultural amendment in debate on the stimulus package.”

“This is clearly a partisan game played so the Democrats can make the Republicans look anti-farm,” he says. “The fact that Sen. Daschle has made this so political is what’s hurting farmers.”

Youngblood adds, “Trent Lott wants an ag bill more than anybody up there in Washington, D.C., but he wants the development of agriculture policy to be a bipartisan effort done through the farm bill, not through other pieces of legislation, like an economic stimulus package.”

While most of the Sunbelt voted in favor of the agricultural assistance package, support for the agricultural disaster assistance amendment was split in Texas, with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison voting for the measure, and Sen. Phil Gramm voting against.

Despite the severity of 2001 agriculture losses and their impact on rural communities, Baucus noted that some members of the Senate have attacked the agricultural provisions of the legislation.

“They’ve poked fun at it, circulating pictures of various fruits and vegetables,” he noted. “Farmers and ranchers across the country may not find this all so amusing. They may wonder why the economic problems of ailing corporations demand immediate action, but the economic problems of farmers and ranchers deserve only derision.”

According to Baucus, the economic stimulus bill may come up for a vote as soon as Feb. 7 or 8.

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