- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 2, 2012

The House on Thursday passed an emergency disaster-relief package for ranchers and certain farmers hit by one of the worst droughts in decades, but the Senate did not take up the measure before lawmakers left for their annual August recess.

The measure came about after negotiations on a five-year “farm bill” — a massive package that would provide agriculture-related subsidies and fund the federal food-stamp program — broke down in the House this week.

Democrats who opposed the bill characterized it as  cover for House Republicans, who control the chamber, to defend themselves against calls they haven’t done enough to help farmers, ranchers and the agriculture industry.

The measure passed 223-197, with 46 Republicans crossing party lines to reject the measure and 35 Democrats voting to support it.

The vote was one of the House’s final actions before Congress begins its five-week summer break.

The package, estimated to cost $383 million, would restore certain disaster-aid programs that expired last year and mostly affect livestock producers and tree farmers. The programs would be restored for the current budget year.

Supporters say the package is needed because although many farmers of corn and other crops have insurance that provides some protection from dry weather, cattle and sheep producers are vulnerable to sharp increases in feed prices that have resulted from this summer’s drought.

But some conservatives, anti-tax groups and others said the package was just the latest example of excessive government handouts.

“The solution is not another Republican big-government government bailout of yet another industry,” said Rep. Jared Polis, Colorado Democrat. “Republicans have bailed out Wall Street, Republicans have bailed out the banks, now Republicans are seeking to bail out cows.”

The Environmental Working Group, a Washington nonprofit that advocates for health, environmental and government subsidy reforms, opposed the House package, saying it would be paid for by imposing caps on conservation programs.

“This is a shortsighted and counterproductive move,” said Scott Faber, the group’s vice president for government affairs. “It is time for Congress to stop using conservation programs as an ATM for other priorities.”

Senate Democrats rebuked House GOP leaders for failing to pass a farm bill, saying the move would leave farmers, ranchers and rural communities in limbo for the rest of the summer.

“While I clearly support an extension of disaster assistance for our livestock producers, it’s past time for [House members] to put their differences aside and work together to ensure our farmers and ranchers have the certainty they need as they face the worst drought in a half-century,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat.

The Senate in June passed its version of a five-year farm bill with bipartisan support. But House Republican leaders, who faced divergent opinions within their own ranks on the issue of farm subsidies and opposition from Democrats over proposed spending levels for the food-stamp program, refused to take up the Senate measure. They instead considered a one-year extension of the current farm bill before setting aside the measure altogether in favor of the disaster-aid bill.

When Congress returns to Washington in early September, it will have to act quickly if it wants to renew farm and food-stamp subsidies without a lapse, as the current farm bill expires at the end of that month.

• This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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