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Senate passes disaster relief

Veneman is none too pleased

New York Times

WASHINGTON -- Senate passage of farm disaster relief happened last week while Farmers Union members were in town to lobby.

Minnesota Farmers Union president Doug Peterson doesn't claim responsibility for the bill's passage, but the former state lawmaker is thrilled the bill passed with a veto-proof majority.

He estimates the $6 billion proposal will bring $300 million to Minnesota farmers who suffered losses in crop years 2001 and 2002 due to flooding, drought or insect infestation.

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Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., wrote the measure, which became an amendment to a $19.3 billion Interior funding bill. The disaster assistance passed by a 79-16 margin.

Thirty-one Republican senators from farm states, who on most other issues are allies of the president, broke ranks and voted for the measure. The House has yet to approve it and the White House has criticized it for costing too much.

Peterson argues the disaster aid is a wash. Higher grain prices are expected to save $5.6 billion this year -- money that was budgeted for in the new farm bill.

"This is not an unusual request," he said.

In the past, farm bills contained emergency assistance provisions for aid, but the 2002 bill doesn't.

The measure faces strong resistance in the House of Representatives as well as the White House.

House majority leader, Rep. Dick Armey, a Texas Republican, called drought aid a political measure to help re-elect South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat.

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said that "the president will continue to work with Congress to see what the most appropriate way is to bring this help to the people who need it."

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Agriculture secretary Ann Veneman wrote a letter to Senate leaders criticizing the proposal.

"The farm bill should break the bad fiscal habit of needing to pass emergency agriculture spending bills including drought, flood or other supplemental payments that make it difficult for Congress to live within its budget," she wrote.

Daschle said taking relief funds from the farm bill was wrong.

"Suggesting that natural disaster aid come from the farm bill is like taking money from one pocket and putting it in the other," he said. "That's not disaster relief, it's a shell game."

Johnson questioned why drought victims should be treated differently than other victims of hurricanes, earthquakes or floods.

Farmers who suffer at least 35 percent loss of their crops and ranchers who lose at least 35 percent of their pasture are to be eligible for assistance.

Agri News staff writer Janet Kubat Willette contributed to this article.

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