Senate-passed disaster package on life support

Approved by the Senate by a vote of 59 to 35, the disaster relief package appears to have run into problems with some House members of the conference committee voicing resistance to plan authored by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.

Staff members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees worked over the weekend, and a compromise seemed to be in the making. However, by Monday afternoon one staffer summed up the situation saying, “I thought we were making progress this past weekend, but now we’re back to square one. We have not come to an agreement.”

Now it’s up to the conferees working on the Senate Omnibus Appropriations bill to resolve the issue of whether to go with the Sen. Cochran’s disaster relief language, or not. The evening meeting, a Senate Agriculture Committee spokesman says, is not the only hope for agriculture disaster aid, but it is at least the primary hope right now.

“The two sides need to come to a compromise,” the spokesman says. “The House and Senate Conferees will have to decide the agriculture disaster issue at the meeting tonight. The plan is still for the 2003 omnibus appropriations bill to be concluded and voted on the House floor by Wednesday or Thursday of this week, and on the Senate floor the following day.”

Essentially, the crux of disaster aid approval by a House-Senate conference comes down to two issues – targeting and timing. Conference members agree that any aid should be targeted to those people that need it, and the money needs to get in producers’ hands as quickly as possible.

Those two factors are working against each other to an extent. If you get down to certain level of certainty that you are only getting those producers whom had a documented loss, it takes more proof and more time to distribute the aid where it is most needed.

According to Conference sources, House members continue to have concerns about which producers receive assistance. “The Senate Agriculture Committee staff believes they have made progress toward a compromise. It’s fair to say the House Agriculture Committee staff does not feel the same,” a Senate Agriculture Committee spokesman says.

The Senate-passed Cochran plan would deliver disaster relief to producers in counties with a 2001 or 2002 disaster designation, and in neighboring counties with losses of at least 35 percent in either year. Delivery of disaster aid would be based on 42 percent of the producer’s direct payment under the 2002 Farm Bill.

The 42 percent formula is similar to historic disaster programs that pay on 65 percent of production at 65 percent of market price, because 65 percent of 65 percent equals 42 percent.

Producers who have not yet enrolled under the 2002 farm bill would receive preliminary payments based on the number of acres in their current enrollment, with the balance of the payment based on their 2002 farm bill acres, according to the legislation.

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