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White House threatens to veto proposed disaster assistance bill

The White House says President Bush will veto the FY 2006 emergency supplemental appropriations bill the Senate is considering if it contains funding for disaster assistance for farmers.

The threat of a veto, which would be the president's first, was contained in a Statement of Administration Policy that came out almost at the same time that a group of 25 farm organizations sent a letter to the Senate Agriculture and Appropriations Committees asking them to continue their support of the legislation.

The White House SAP commended Sens. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., chairman and ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, for providing $92.2 billion to support the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and for hurricane relief and reconstruction and $2.3 billion in emergency funds for pandemic influenza preparedness.

“However, the Senate-reported bill substantially exceeds the president's request, primarily for items unrelated to the Global War on Terror and hurricane response,” the White House said. “The final version of the legislation must remain focused on addressing urgent national priorities while maintaining fiscal discipline.

“Accordingly, if the president is ultimately presented a bill that provides more than $92.2 billion, exclusive of funding for the president's plan to address pandemic influenza, he will veto the bill.”

The farm groups, which were unaware of the veto threat when they sent their letter to Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Tom Harkin, chairman and ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, and Cochran and Byrd, asked them to “oppose any efforts to delete the agricultural disaster assistance provisions from the supplemental appropriations bill.

The groups noted that virtually every state felt the impact of significant weather problems and that 80 percent of U.S. counties were declared disaster or contiguous disaster counties in 2005 due to hurricanes, fires, floods, excessive moisture and severe drought.

“We appreciate recent supplemental assistance offered to help some victims of the 2005 hurricane season,” the groups said. “Unfortunately, this assistance is not available to all farmers and ranchers who suffered devastating losses due to hurricanes.

“Furthermore, none of the supplemental assistance is available to producers who suffered significant economic losses to crop and livestock operations as a result of fires, flooding, drought, excessive moisture and the record-high energy costs brought on by natural disasters.”

Organizations signing the letter include the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association, Farm Credit Council, National Corn Growers Association, National Cotton Council, National Farmers Union, National Sorghum Producers, USA Rice Federation and U.S. Rice Producers Association.

“Because of the urgent need for disaster assistance and the widespread losses which span the country, we believe the provisions in the supplemental appropriations measure are crafted in a manner that offers producers the combination of supplement direct assistance and production loss assistance that is both timely and tailored to meet all disaster-related losses,” they said.

“Many producers need assistance within weeks to repay loans and secure new financing in time for spring planting, so prompt action on this measure is vitally important given that traditional production loss assistance can take up to six months.”

The supplemental bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee would provide about $4 billion in disaster assistance to farmers who sustained crop losses due to natural events in 2005. The bill also includes a 30-percent supplemental direct payment to all producers that received a 2005 direct payment from the farm bill.

The previously approved House supplemental appropriations bill does not contain agriculture disaster provisions.

Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, meanwhile, released a statement saying he supported the Senate Appropriations Committee version of the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act.

“I have been and will continue to be extremely supportive of disaster relief that takes into consideration ALL natural disasters,” said the West Texas Congressman. “I have also begun working with my Texas counterparts and other friends in agriculture to secure disaster relief funds for agriculture across the state and nation.

“I am respectful of the fact that hurricane assistance has been provided, but I feel strongly that that we simply cannot forget those suffering from equally devastating natural disasters such as fire and drought.”

Conaway said he would continue to offer support and effort for “proper and responsible means to assist producers who are suffering from severe financial losses as a result of unpredictable adverse weather conditions. Rural America needs our help and in return will continue to provide all Americans with the safest, most abundant, and affordable food supply in the world.”

He also cited language inserted by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, that would provide $611 million for wildfire recovery assistance for farmers and ranchers who have experienced losses from the 2006 wildfires.

In mid-February, Rep. Conaway and 24 other Members of the U.S. House of Representatives from both the Texas and Oklahoma delegations sent a letter to the House Leadership as well as the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee stressing the need for comprehensive disaster assistance.

The members are seeking a relief package that extends across the country and takes into account all natural disasters, not simply limited to hurricane disaster assistance.

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