Agreement moves disaster assistance a step closer?

White House and Senate negotiators have reached agreement on a $3.1 billion supplemental disaster package for U.S. agriculture that would not require offsets in farm program spending. The measure must still pass muster in the House where leaders have not looked favorably on such legislation. But some say House leaders will fall into line after the White House dropped its insistence on offsets in farm bill spending for any disaster aid.

While Senate leaders weren't saying much, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback told reporters the White House had signed off on the $3.1 billion in the omnibus spending bill the Senate Appropriations Committee began considering on Jan. 16.

Besides a supplemental direct payment, the package reportedly would include $100 million for fruit and vegetable producers, $50 million for cottonseed producers and first handlers and help for rice and sugarcane growers hammered by the two hurricane/tropical storms that hit the lower Mid-South last fall.

It would also provide $10 million for lower Rio Grande Valley producers who could not water their crops when Mexico failed to honor an agreement to provide water to the region.

The $3.1 billion for disaster assistance would come from a 1 percent cut in all 11 of the spending bills that Congress has yet to pass for the 2003 fiscal year. But most of that would be accomplished by “reductions in the amount of increases that had been planned,” a Senate Ag Committee staff member said.

Taking a stand against the offset requirement was Sen. Thad Cochran, who finally became chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee after Democrats and Republicans agreed on how to divide funding among committee staffs.

Cochran had said the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry would try to find a way to get federal disaster aid to the nation's farmers despite the White House position on budget offsets. “I think the Senate will respond with some amount of aid,” he noted. “Farmers need help.”

He said he was sympathetic to the president's wishes, but that the funding could come from money saved when higher soybean and grain prices negated the need for loan deficiency payments for those crops.

The new ag committee chairman also rejected legislation that was expected to be offered by Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel that would impose drastically lower payment limits on farm program benefits and apply the “savings” to disaster assistance.

Hagel's proposal supposedly would limit an individual to $225,000 in farm payments no matter how many entities he operates. Separate payment limits for a spouse would go away, and USDA would have to review farm programs and eliminate any payment limit “loopholes.”

“I will work hard to see this legislation is not enacted by the Senate,” Cochran said. He said any such measure would “treat producers in Southern states unfairly.”

While the logjam may finally be breaking, the $3.1 billion is by no means a certainty. Although its supplemental payments would get help to farmers faster than any other means, the payments were already being criticized for “being biased toward southern crop producers,” as one pundit put it. Whether such criticism means even more delays in disaster assistance checks is anybody's guess.

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