WASHINGTON (AP) — The House is taking up legislation to help drought-stricken livestock producers in one of its final acts before adjourning for the August recess.
The legislation, while unlikely to receive Senate consideration before Congress leaves at the end of the week for a five-week vacation, may deflect some complaints that Congress is ignoring both the short-term crisis facing farmers and the need to bring about long-term farming policy changes.
The House bill, scheduled to be voted on Thursday, would restore four disaster assistance programs that expired last year. They deal mainly with livestock and orchard producers.
While many farmers of corn and other crops have insurance that provides some protections from the effects of the worst drought in a quarter-century, cattle and sheep producers are vulnerable to the sharp rises in feed prices resulting from the dry weather.
The disaster programs would be restored for the 2012 budget year, at an estimated cost of $383 million. That would be paid for by imposing caps on two conservation programs.
The vote on the disaster relief bill comes as House Republican leaders fend off criticisms for not bringing up a five-year farm and nutrition bill to replace the current farm bill, which expires at the end of September.
The Senate in June passed, on a bipartisan vote, legislation that would revise crop subsidy programs, eliminating direct payments to farmers even when they don't plant crops while authorizing nearly $100 billion a year for subsidy, conservation and food stamp programs. The House Agriculture Committee last month approved similar legislation.
But the House GOP leadership has resisted bringing the bill to the floor, leery of a potential rebellion from conservative lawmakers against spending levels in the bill — particularly the nearly $80 billion a year for the food stamp program, which provides food aid to some 46 million people. Some Democrats, in turn, oppose the bill because it cuts 2 percent, $1.6 billion a year, from the food stamp program.
House leaders last week proposed legislation that would have combined disaster relief with a one-year extension of the existing farm act. That was widely criticized by farm groups, who said farmers need the certainty of a new five-year bill, and Senate Democrats, who warned that it was a ploy to block consideration of the new bill. The one-year extension idea was abandoned this week.
"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 and House farm bills, farm groups representing corn, soybean, wheat, milk and other growers wrote in a statement expressing disappointment that Congress was leaving without taking up the 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," they wrote.
The Environmental Working Group's vice president of government affairs, Scott Faber, said his group opposed the disaster aid bill because of the cuts to conservation programs. Livestock producers "certainly need assistance during this historic drought. But the proposal would cut the very conservation programs that help farmers mitigate drought conditions."
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said Tuesday it was still his priority to pass a five-year bill. "The challenges our farmers and ranchers are currently facing only underscores how important it is that we complete a five-year farm bill this year."
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Wednesday that some 3.8 million acres of conservation land would be opened for emergency haying and grazing to bring relief to livestock producers dealing with shortages of hay and pastureland. He also said farmers would be given an extra 30 days to make insurance premium payments this year without incurring interest penalties on unpaid premiums.
Vilsack also signed disaster designations for an additional 218 counties in 12 states. Half of all counties in the country have been designated disaster areas by the Agriculture Department in 2012, mainly due to drought.
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