Senate passes $6 billion disaster package

Proponents of the measure, an amendment to the Interior appropriations bill, defied an administration request to defeat “this amendment and any agriculture spending in excess of the $180 billion in spending provided in the new farm bill earlier this year.”

NOTE:The Senate voted 79-16 for a budget waiver and then passed the disaster assistance amendment by a voice vote.

The amendment, which was proposed by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, had five Republicans among its 28 co-sponsors. Despite the large margin of approval in the Senate, Washington sources say the proposal faces an uncertain future in the House.

Prior to the vote, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman had written Senate leaders to advise them of the Bush administration unhappiness with the Senate amendment that would provide disaster payments above the spending levels authorized in the 2002 farm bill.

“The administration strongly opposes this amendment and any agriculture spending in excess of the $180 billion in spending provided earlier this year,” Veneman said in the letter.

“This proposal would add $6 billion on top of the already generous farm bill only a few months after the bill was enacted. This is unacceptable,” he said. “The needs for the current drought must be met within the additional resources provided for in the Farm Bill.”

The Bush administration has been on record as saying that disaster assistance for the 2001 and 2002 crops must be funded through “offsets” in budget authority for the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002. Veneman’s letter was the first direct statement of opposition to such spending, however.

In it, the secretary defended the administration’s efforts to help farmers suffering from the 2002 drought.

“As you know, the administration continues to take all action allowable under current law to assist struggling farmers and ranchers,” she said. “This includes expediting emergency declarations and making emergency loans available to producers, the recent release of CCC-owned milk powder in order to provide a low cost feed supplement for cow and calf operations, and the opening of all CRP lands nationwide for haying and grazing.

“The President has consistently stated his support for additional drought relief provided it does not increase the deficit.”

She said Congress has already provided the tools for drought relief for crop farmers through the heavily subsidized Federal Crop Insurance Program, noting the crop insurance subsidy was increased dramatically in 2000 to avoid the need for disaster payments.

“The vast majority of the crop acreage in the drought regions is covered by crop insurance,” she said. “Over 70 percent of the acreage in the U.S. is covered and over 80 percent in South Dakota. Our goal should be to maximize participation in the program.”

But she also said USDA does recognize that ranchers and livestock producers who have been severely impacted by this drought do not benefit from the same risk management tools available to other farmers.

“The recently enacted Farm Bill provides $180 billion, an increase of $82 billion above the baseline,” she said. “This $180 billion can accommodate funding for emergencies, economic assistance, rural development, and other purposes. One of the greatest benefits of the Farm Bill is that it ensures farmers have the resources they need.”

Farm organizations, including the National Cotton Council, had argued that taking money from the new farm bill authorization would reduce the amount of assistance that had been promised to help them recover from four years of disastrously low prices.

Other groups applauded the Senate for its willingness to go to bat for farmers at a time of turmoil in both agriculture and the national economy.

“We applaud the Senate for passing this essential assistance,” said Dave Frederickson, president of the National Farmers Union. “Farmers Union has worked hard for this first step toward certainty for farmers and ranchers devastated by drought, floods, insects and disease. We encourage the House to follow quickly with similar legislation and urge the administration to support this bipartisan effort to assist rural America.”

The Daschle amendment was similar to bipartisan legislation introduced by Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Tim Johnson, D-S.D. for earlier farm bill and supplemental spending measures.

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