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Mixed views of disaster bill

Thursday, the House is expected to vote on a bill that would find funds for livestock disaster programs that expired last year. The effort is all that remains of a one-year farm bill extension that was introduced last week and withdrawn by House leaders Tuesday.

Already, the drought aid effort is getting a mixed response in the ag community and on Capitol Hill.

South Dakota's two U.S. Senators, Tim Johnson, a Democrat, and John Thune, a Republican, both voted for a 2012 farm bill when it was debated on the Senate floor in June. And Thune, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, played a role in writing the bill, offering a sod-saver provision that would cut crop insurance premiums on grasslands converted to crops.

Even though both say they still want a farm bill passed this year, and both want help for their state's livestock farmers hit by drought, their reaction to a House bill for disaster relief was shaded by subtle, more partisan differences Wednesday.

"The House needs to stop dithering and pass a good farm bill," Johnson told reporters in a conference call Wednesday.

"Both Senator Thune and I strongly support the Senate farm bill and voted for it," Johnson said. He called the House's latest effort "a fig leaf"  and said he's not certain whether it will pass. The House Rules Committee is requiring a two-thirds majority for passage.

"My own preference is clearly to take up the Senate farm bill," Johnson said. Like the farm bill extension that House leaders withdrew, the smaller disaster bill pays for help for livestock producers "by taking a meat ax approach to cutting conservation programs," he added.

When asked if the Senate would support the House's smaller disaster bill if it does pass, Johnson said, "I don't know. The Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Deb Stabenow, is pushing for full authorization of the farm bill and I think the Senate Democrats will go along with the chairman."

Thune was supportive of the disaster bill, which he says would provide $380 million in drought relief.  

"I hope they can get that through the House and if they do, hopefully we'll be able to act on it in the Senate," Thune said.

Thune said that it would be possible for the Senate to vote on it late Thursday before heading home for the August recess. "It can always be done. Where there's a will there's a way," he said.

But Thune also still supports getting a farm bill passed this year.

"I'm still hopeful that can happen. Clearly now it's going to be a September event than something we could address this week," he said.  The House has only eight legislative days left on its calendar in September after returning from its five-week recess.   

Meanwhile, major farm groups fired off a letter to the members of the House on Wednesday, urging action on a farm bill this year. It said, in part:

"The undersigned farm organizations support finding a path forward to reaching agreement on a new five-year farm bill before current program authorities expire on Sept. 30. We are disappointed that the House Republican leadership has decided to not move forward with the House Agriculture Committee’s bill before adjourning for the August recess. That bill would provide the disaster relief our farm and ranch families need at this time.

"Instead, we understand the House may consider a separate disaster bill, under suspension of the rules on August 2, to make supplemental agricultural disaster assistance available for Fiscal Year 2012. Specifically, the bill retroactively extends the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP), the Livestock Forage Program (LFP), the Emergency Livestock Assistance Program (ELAP) and the Tree Assistance Program (TAP) so that producers are helped for Fiscal Year 2012. All of those programs expired in 2011. Offsets to pay for the disaster assistance would come from imposing caps on two conservation programs, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

"We do not oppose passage of a disaster assistance bill, but note that almost identical provisions to retroactively extend these four programs are included in the Senate-passed farm bill and the bill reported by the House Agriculture Committee. Those measures would likely be included in any conference committee report. It is imperative that we pass a comprehensive, long-term farm bill. Farmers and ranchers always face decisions that carry very serious financial ramifications, such as planting a crop, buying land or building a herd, and we need clear and confident signals from our lawmakers."

The letter was signed by the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Barley Growers Association, National Corn Growers Association, National Farmers Union, National Milk Producers Federation, National Sunflower Association, United Fresh Produce Association, U.S. Canola Association, USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council, and  Western Growers.

In a statement, National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson said, "All of the programs the standalone disaster legislation temporarily extends could be extended for the full life of the 2012 Farm Bill if the 2012 Farm Bill were conferenced and enacted. This duplicative step only wastes precious legislative time."

"This proposed disaster package is designed to make it appear as through Congress is taking action to help farmers in need before members go home to their districts this month," Johnson said. "However, this ill-considered action only holds farmers hostage with uncertainty, and does nothing to address specialty crops, dairy, commodities and other non-insured produce. Instead, the House should pass a 2012 Farm Bill before it leaves for August recess."

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