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Peterson expects House Republicans to cut conservation programs to pay for disaster aid

By JERRY HAGSTROM

House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said this evening that he expects the House Republican leadership to cut conservation programs to fund disaster aid for livestock producers and possibly fruit and vegetable growers hurt by the drought. The House is expected to vote on a disaster aid program, probably on Thursday.

A House GOP aide said the leadership hopes to bring the disaster aid bill up on the suspension calendar, which would mean debate would be limited, no amendments would be allowed and two-thirds of the House members would have to vote for its passage.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
In an interview off the House floor as members cast their first votes of the week, Peterson said the Republican leadership’s decision to pull the combined farm bill extension and disaster aid bill was “what I expected” after he got a call from House leadership on Saturday to discuss the bill’s prospects. Many major farm groups came out against the extension.

Peterson said he is “not wild” about using the conservation program cuts as an offset, and has not decided whether he will support the measure. “I’m going to withhold judgment,” he said.

Peterson said the Republicans want to use the cuts in the environmental quality incentives program and the conservation stewardship program that appropriators already made in the fiscal year 2013 Agriculture appropriations bill. The House leaders can use those same cuts because the appropriations bill has not come on the House floor or become law.

Peterson noted that he has not seen estimates of the cost of the disaster aid, but said he believes the Republicans want to cut $350 million from the environmental quality incentives program and $300 million from the conservation stewardship program.

The bill currently contains aid for livestock producers that would cost approximately $400 million, while $250 million would be devoted to deficit reduction, Peterson said. Republicans believe a deficit reduction cut will make it easier to get conservative Republicans to vote for the bill.

The House disaster aid proposal currently is limited to livestock and does not cover fruit and vegetable producers, but Peterson said he urged House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., to include a fruit and vegetable disaster aid program when the two met early today with Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Senate Agriculture ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

Peterson noted that conservation groups are “not happy” about the offset.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which campaigned against the extension of the 2008 farm bill, said late today it is “very pleased” that the House will not consider the one-year farm bill extension and would support a disaster aid bill “provided farm conservation funding is not raided in the process.”

“Funding a short-term disaster package by cutting conservation programs would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face — ugly and debilitating,” the NSAC said.

“The best way for Congress to address disaster assistance and help farmers through this severe drought is to pass a new five-year farm bill reform package,” the NSAC said.

Whatever disaster aid package the House passes this week, Peterson said he does not believe it will become law before the August recess because the Senate will not have time to take it up.

Stabenow said she does not believe disaster aid will be finished this week.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called on the House to “do something about drought relief,” and send it to his chamber, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he is confident that they will do just that, National Journal reported.

“We also anticipate the House will send us something on drought assistance,” McConnell said today, NJ reported.

“It strikes most of us that some kind of drought assistance clearing the Congress and getting to the president this week would be a good idea, given the severity of conditions all across the central part of the country,” McConnell said.

After spending a month at home with their constituents, Peterson said, House members will be under pressure to pass disaster aid and a new five-year farm bill in September.

Peterson said he and Stabenow asked the Republican leadership to allow a farm bill conference based on the Senate-passed farm bill and the House disaster aid bill, but does not believe the House leadership will go along with that.

Peterson added that Roberts "is not wild" about such a conference, and believes the farm bill should be completed in the lame duck session.

A Roberts spokeswoman said in an email, "Sen. Roberts is focused on drought assistance. That is his highest priority until we know what the House decides to do."

Peterson said he believes there would be enough votes to pass the bill the House Agriculture Committee approved, and said he is “making a lot of progress” with Democrats.

Peterson said he disagrees with Lucas’s statements that the current farm bill should be extended for another year because the Agriculture Department will not have time to implement new commodity title provisions before the next crop year starts. USDA did the job on the 2008 farm bill, Peterson noted.

On whether the farm bill would be completed in September or in the lame duck session after the election, “it’s a crap shoot,” Peterson said.

If the farm bill is not completed in September, Congress will pass a stand-alone disaster aid bill that month, Peterson said. He also said he does not believe it would be added to a continuing resolution because the House Republican leadership wants a “clean CR.”

Peterson said it has been fine to work with Lucas on the bill, “but Lucas has a big problem with his leadership. I wouldn't be anywhere near as nice if they were doing this to me.”

Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla.

Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla.
Lucas said in a statement late today, “My priority remains to get a five-year farm bill on the books and put those policies in place, but the most pressing business before us is to provide disaster assistance to those producers impacted by the drought conditions who are currently exposed.”

“The House is expected to consider a disaster assistance package on Thursday and I encourage my colleagues to support it,” Lucas said.

“Beyond that, I will continue to work with my leadership, ranking member Peterson and our members to determine the best path forward,” he said. “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.”