by Jerry Hagstrom, DTN Political Correspondent
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Apparently fearing they lack the two-thirds majority needed to pass a farm disaster bill on the suspension calendar, House Republican leaders have decided to bring up the bill today under regular order with a closed rule. That means the bill will have a one-hour debate, cannot be amended, and can pass with a simple majority.
The bill would reauthorize four disaster aid programs: Livestock Indemnity Payments (LIP), Livestock Forage Disaster Programs (LFP), Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees, and Farm-raised Fish (ELAP), and the Tree Assistance Program (TAP).
But the bill would provide no specific aid to fruit growers, a key goal of Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., whose growers -- cherry producers particularly -- have experienced both a freeze and a drought.
The bill authorizes disaster assistance for 2012 only, and provides for payments totaling $383 million, a House Agriculture Committee spokeswoman said. The money would come from cuts to the environmental quality incentives program known as EQIP and from the conservation stewardship program known as CSP. Those programs would be cut by a total of $639 million over 10 years ($350 million from EQIP, $289 million from CSP), with $256 million going to deficit reduction.
House Republicans are under intense pressure to signal that they will provide aid to drought-affected farmers before they leave Washington later today or Friday for a recess that will last until Sept. 10.
This week the Republican leadership first tried to bring up an extension of the 2008 farm bill with disaster aid attached, but farm groups rebelled and did not support that measure. Then they tried to bring up the disaster bill on the suspension calendar, which is a quick way to move popular legislation. The situation has resulted in national stories about the relationship of House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., to the congressional leadership and the leadership's ability to manage legislation. Lucas has tried to avoid open confrontation, but has now said he is determined to pass a five-year farm bill this year.
The nation's most powerful farm groups on Wednesday threw cold water on the disaster bill by issuing a joint news release that said while they will not oppose the measure, they are disappointed the House has not taken up the five-year farm bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee.
"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," the groups said.
"Those measures would likely be included in any conference committee report," the letter said. "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 groups, led by the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union and including major commodity groups, provided a detailed critique of the disaster package.
"Assistance for cattle and sheep producers is very important and something that we strongly support in the five-year farm bill, but it is also important that assistance be provided for other types of livestock and for producers of fruits and vegetables," the groups said.
"The disaster assistance bill does not help hog or poultry producers and only provides limited assistance via the grazing program for the dairy industry. The bill does not help dairy producers who are not located in a designated disaster county with grazing assistance and does not address high feed prices for dairy, hog or poultry producers."
The groups also noted, "If the House simply passed the five-year farm bill reported out of committee on a bipartisan basis, this bill would not be necessary."
The Republican leadership also apparently realized they would face opposition to the bill from conservation and hunting and fishing groups.
A coalition of those groups including the National Association of Conservation Districts and Pheasants Forever said in a news release that the bill "does not meet the test of basic fairness."
"While we all strongly support providing disaster relief to those suffering this terrible drought, we cannot support a bill that would make the impacts of future drought more severe by cutting the very programs that help build disaster resiliency into farming operations," the groups said.
"It is time for Congress to stop using conservation programs as an ATM for other priorities," EWG Vice President Scott Faber said in a news release.
"At a moment when tens of millions of acres are being converted into cropland to meet a misguided corn ethanol mandate, cuts to the programs meant to blunt agriculture's impact on the landscape result in an environmental double-whammy, undermining efforts to protect source water and protect wildlife," Faber said.
Before the decision to bring the bill up under regular order late Wednesday night, House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., told National Journal he was not sure the farm disaster aid bill could pass on the suspension calendar.
"I asked [House Majority Whip Kevin] McCarthy [R-Calif.] and they haven't whipped it, I don't think," Peterson said. "He was expecting all the Democrats to vote for it, I think he's kidding himself."
Peterson added, "I'm going to vote for it because of Frank Lucas. I don't like it, but it's a show of good faith, and we'll continue to work on a bipartisan basis."
Peterson added it was up to the House leadership to try and whip up votes, not him.
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Posted with DTN Permission by Haylie Shipp