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Conference committee bows to president’s wishes on disaster aid

A House-Senate Conference Committee voted to scale down the $3.9 billion in disaster aid that the Senate included in the fiscal year 2006 emergency supplemental appropriations bill.

The conference report provides $500 million for producers who were in declared primary and contiguous disaster counties in the paths of Hurricanes Katrina, Ophelia, Rita and Wilma in 2005. President Bush had threatened to veto the supplemental bill if it contained the full $3.9 billion.

Democratic Senators Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and House members including Colin Peterson of Minnesota and Marion Berry of Arkansas had argued for disaster relief for farmers outside the hurricane-hit areas.

“I am very disappointed that the Republican Leadership caved to pressure from the White House and failed to protect the agriculture disaster assistance funds provided by the Senate in the emergency supplemental spending bill,” Peterson said in a statement released after the conference committee reduced the funding on June 8.

The president had said Congress should limit the funding in the supplemental bill to $94.5 billion, including spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and hurricane relief efforts. Another $2 billion was authorized for handling outbreaks of avian flu.

Peterson, the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, said that while the supplemental bill will fund many important priorities, it also includes billions of dollars in wasteful spending while “ignoring the very practical, immediate needs of many rural communities.

“While the disaster assistance provided to farmers hit hard by hurricanes is obviously important, the president and Republican leadership are short-sighted in their failure to help farmers in other regions who are also struggling to stay in business after severe floods, droughts and other disasters,” Peterson said.

“I have seen the damage that catastrophic weather can do, whether it is caused by a hurricane or a severe thunderstorm. The impact on communities is the same. Farmers beyond the Gulf region needed relief from disaster, and family farms will go out of business because Congress has not stepped up to help.”

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., Appropriations Committee chairman and the conference committee’s ranking senator who helped the Senate pass the $3.9 billion disaster package, finally gave up the fight during late-night negotiations, settling for the $500 million figure.

While Cochran did not criticize the administration or House conference committee members, Conrad blasted the committee for failing to help farmers in the “nearly 80 percent of U.S. counties that were designated disaster areas in 2005.

“My bipartisan agriculture disaster assistance bill could have helped family farmers and ranchers trying to stay in business. Instead, recovery for farmers and ranchers was blocked by President Bush and the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives. That is wrong. As Americans, we help each other overcome disaster.”

The conference report does contain $15 million for producers and first handlers of cottonseed in counties designated as hurricane disaster areas in 2005. Any funds not disbursed in those counties can be used to help farmers in other counties.

Conrad said he and other Democratic members of Congress have not given up on disaster aid. “I will pursue a farm disaster assistance package at every available opportunity because I believe it is the right thing to do for North Dakotans and the right thing for farmers and ranchers across America.”

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