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Senate leaders turn back Conrad disaster bill

The third time was not a charm as Senate Republican leaders once again blocked efforts by a bipartisan group of farm-state senators to provide assistance to farmers and ranchers hammered by weather disasters in 2005 and 2006.

“A fair vote has been denied here in the Senate and the party in power has turned its back on American farmers,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. Conrad and Conrad Burns, R-Mont., Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and other senators introduced two other emergency assistance bills for 2005 and 2006 that have not become law.

“This fight is far from over,” said Conrad, a member of the Agriculture Committee, following the action or lack of action in the Senate on Thursday. “I won’t stand by and let this be swept under the rug. The livelihoods of thousands of farm families are at stake.”

Conrad, Arkansas Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu have been calling on the House and Senate to pass Conrad’s bill, the Emergency Relief Act of 2006, before Congress adjourns for the Nov. 7 mid-term elections. But Republican leaders objected to Conrad’s request to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote.

The bill, which now has 22 co-sponsors in the Senate, combines legislation previously introduced to support farmers and ranchers impacted by frost, flood, disease and drought during the 2005 growing season with legislation to aid producers suffering from the 2006 drought that is devastating the Great Plains.

In a speech requesting that the Senate debate and vote on the bill, Conrad said the Great Plains region that includes North and South Dakota is now being hit with the third worst drought on record. Ironically, this year’s drought follows a year in which floods prevented more than a million acres of farmland from being planted in North Dakota.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns recently declared all 53 North Dakota counties agricultural disaster areas, an action that makes farmers eligible for low-interest-rate emergency lows, but no direct financial assistance.

“It is true there are some places that had good crops – they had just the right mix of weather conditions or irrigation,” Conrad said. “But much of North Dakota has been devastated. I am told by the bankers of our state if we do not get help, 5 percent to 10 percent of the producers in North Dakota will be forced off the land.”

The need for disaster assistance is not limited to North and South Dakota or even the Great Plains, said Conrad, noting that 34 national farm organizations have announced they are asking Congress to provide the disaster relief contained in his legislation.

Drought losses in Texas now exceed an estimated $4.1 billion and Alabama cotton farmers reportedly are harvesting less than half-a-bale-per-acre in the Tennessee Valley Region of the state.

The Senate previously passed two versions of Conrad’s legislation, one last December and the second last spring. But the House leadership blocked the legislation after President Bush threatened to veto any bill that contained the measure.

The Conrad bill would provide emergency funding to farmers and ranchers who have suffered weather-related losses of at least 35 percent of normal production, quality losses and damage to livestock and feed supplies. It also helps farmers overcome losses as a result of energy price spikes following last year’s hurricanes.

“This is not a partisan issue, it is the issue of doing what is right and what is needed,” says Conrad. “It is time for the leaders of the Senate, the House and the White House to support passage of an agricultural disaster assistance package. Without this action, thousands of family farms and ranches will be lost.”


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