Farm-state senators will make a last-ditch effort this week to pass agricultural disaster assistance, though it’s unlikely it will become law before the new year.
North Dakota Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, both Democrats, pressured Republican leadership to take up the legislation the week of Nov. 13. But the senators’ amendment, which would have provided about $4.5 billion for farmers affected by weather-related losses, was blocked as fiscal conservatives complained about the cost.
The senators will try again the week of Dec. 4, when Congress returns for one week before the end of the year. If they are successful, the legislation will be added to an agriculture spending bill that would be considered by House and Senate negotiators after Democrats take control of Congress in January.
“The odds are tougher of getting it in December, the odds are better that it gets approved when the Democratic Congress is in power,” said Rep. Stephanie Herseth, D-S.D.
Farmers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and several Midwestern states have been suffering from weather-related losses, including a drought that has hit many areas hard over the past few years. Members of Congress from those states have unsuccessfully pushed billions of dollars in relief as Republican leaders and the White House have objected to the money, saying it is excessive and unnecessary.
The legislation likely has enough votes to pass the Senate, where it has passed before, if farm-state senators can secure the floor time. But changing dynamics in the House will be key to the bill’s ultimate success.
Herseth said she has spoken with incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and feels confident the disaster assistance will have a better chance of passing that chamber in the new Congress.
Rep. Collin Peterson, the Minnesota Democrat who will head the House Agriculture Committee next year, said it is incumbent on Democrats to move the disaster legislation.
“This isn’t going to go away,” he said. “The sooner we can get this done, the better.”
Republican Rep. Barbara Cubin, Wyoming’s only House member, said she will continue to pressure members of her own party.
“The Senate has demonstrated they are willing to support a disaster assistance package, and I will continue to put the thumb-screws to House leadership until they recognize the seriousness of this issue,” Cubin said.
But a Democratic Congress doesn’t mean the legislation is a sure thing. Bush will have to lift his opposition to the disaster dollars for the bill to become law.
Peterson said the administration’s position is not unreasonable. At the same time, he said, it is frustrating farmers.
“Part of their reasoning, I don’t disagree with it, is that they wanted more information, they wanted the harvest to be more complete,” Peterson said. “But it’s putting a lot of pressure on people out there that have got big problems. There’s a lot of frustration out in the countryside that this isn’t done yet.”
Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., said farm state members will keep up the fight.
“Farmers and ranchers throughout the Great Plains have been hit hard by weather-related disaster and will soon be making some tough decisions about next year,” he said.
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