A House committee approved almost $4 billion in agricultural disaster aid late last week, a first step for the controversial legislation.
The money is included as part of a war spending bill that would require withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by next year. That Democratic provision prompted Republicans to vote against the measure, and it was approved on a party line vote.
Western and Midwestern members of Congress have been trying for more than a year to find a way to pay farmers for losses due to an ongoing drought, along with flooding and other disasters. House Republicans have opposed the idea, but Democrats who are now in charge have supported it. President Bush has remained opposed, saying it is too expensive.
The House bill is expected to go to the floor this week, and the Senate also is expected to take up the legislation.
North Dakota Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a Democrat, called the committee approval a “big step forward,” saying it increases the chance the bill eventually will be passed. Pomeroy supports the underlying bill, which calls for troops to leave Iraq before September 2008 and possibly sooner if the Iraqi government does not meet certain benchmarks.
Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota has not yet decided how she will vote on the war spending bill but praised the committee’s inclusion of the disaster money.
“This is a much deserved and long overdue victory for South Dakota’s farmers and ranchers, who have suffered through years of severe drought,” she said.
Republicans who have fought for the disaster money said they will not be able to vote for it because of the Iraq provisions.
Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg, who sits on the spending committee that approved the bill, said he voted against the legislation “in good conscience.”
Rehberg argued that the disaster dollars could be held up because of opposition to the underlying war spending bill. Though many Democrats have supported it, some liberals have said the war should not be funded at all. And President Bush has said he will veto the measure if it includes troop withdrawals.
“All they are doing is delaying the kind of assistance that should be going to our farmers,” Rehberg said.
Wyoming Rep. Barbara Cubin said she also will oppose the bill when it comes to the House floor, arguing that voting for the legislation would be “an acceptance of the Democrats’ defeatist mentality.”
North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, plans to add a similar amount of money to his chamber’s version of the war spending bill when it is considered by his panel this week. He said he believes it is the best chance for the disaster money, especially because of House Democrats’ support.
“We will find a much more receptive audience in (House-Senate) conference,” Dorgan said.
North Dakota Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple, a Republican, was in Washington last week lobbying the federal Agriculture Department to support the disaster money.
“What it’s about is the impact on the economy of an entire region,” he said. “When you come down to the human level, there is no question that there are farmers meeting with their bankers right now, and whether or not they can farm this year is dependent on whether this program is approved.”
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