Congress took a half-step toward drought relief for U.S. farmers on Thursday before finally failing on the issue on the eve of a five-week recess.
The House of Representatives passed an emergency drought-relief bill for the country - and particularly the hard-hit states of the Midwest - but the Senate declined to take up the bill until it is considered as part of the overall federal farm bill in September.
The impasse means there will be no specific congressional action until after Labor Day.
However, a former Senate Agriculture Committee chairman said there is already federal money available to help farmers struggling with the drought.
Additionally, Wednesday's disaster declaration by the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows farmers in several states to apply for relief through the federal Farm Service Agency.
That disaster declaration allows farmers to apply for low-interest loans and other assistance through the FSA. The drought has struck much of the nation, but it has been felt perhaps the worst in the Midwest states where agriculture is most dominant.
Thursday's developments at the Capitol included hours of debate on the drought relief bill in the House, followed by a 223-197 vote late in the afternoon.
Two hours earlier, however, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a senior member and former chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told reporters there would be no Senate response until the issue can be included as part of the comprehensive farm bill in September.
The House drought relief bill was aimed at farmers of livestock, poultry and tree crops and was essentially an extension of the relief programs that expired last year. It would have provided $383 billion in emergency assistance -- matching an estimate by congressional officials of 2012 fiscal year losses.
By comparison, the Senate-passed farm bill contained $1.1 billion for disaster relief each year through 2017 and $2.2 billion a year through 2022. Those estimates vary based on drought conditions.
The overall farm bill is reauthorized by Congress every five years and will expire and revert to a 1949 version on September 30th without congressional action.
Competing versions have already been passed by the Senate and by the House Agriculture Committee, but House GOP leaders this week backtracked on plans to call a vote on a one-year extension of the current bill, leaving the issue in limbo. Disaster-relief provisions in the current farm bill already expired on September 30, 2011.
Harkin said the House drought relief bill would have gutted conservation programs and that there is already money in the federal budget to help farmers struggling with the drought. House Republicans wanted to cut $639 billion in environmental programs to fund the bill, he noted.
"We have provisions in the budget that would provide enough money to cover this disaster without cutting other agriculture programs… There is money in there for this disaster," Harkin said. "We're going to be back here in September and try to fix it."
Specifically, Harkin's office noted that federal crop insurance is already available for growers of corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton.
A one-year extension of the current farm bill never really got off the ground in the House, despite members of both parties arguing that it was the only possible solution for now.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., were joined by others who said such a temporary fix offered farmers and businesses no certainty about the future.
by RTT Staff Writer
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