WASHINGTON - The House on Thursday extended disaster assistance to livestock producers reeling from rising feed prices caused by the drought that has scorched much of the nation.
The 223-197 vote to revive expired disaster relief programs for cattle and sheep producers was one of the House's last actions before lawmakers left for their five-week August recess.
The Senate was not acting on the bill as it wrapped up its pre-recess work, and Democratic opponents characterized the legislation as cover for Republicans having to explain to rural constituents why they put off action on a comprehensive five-year farm policy bill.
While many crop farmers have insurance that provides some protection from the effects of the worst drought in a quarter-century, livestock producers are vulnerable to sharp increases in feed prices resulting from the dry weather. Some have had to liquidate stocks early because of the high maintenance costs.
The bill would restore four disaster aid programs, mostly for livestock producers and tree farmers, that expired last year. The estimated cost, $383 million, would be paid for by shaving some $630 million from two conservation programs. The disaster programs would be restored for the 2012 budget year.
While there was little dispute over the difficult straits of the livestock industry, there was opposition to the bill from environmental groups disturbed by the cuts to the conservation programs, anti-tax groups who saw the bill as another government bailout and agriculture groups who have been pushing the House to vote on a five-year farm bill that, in addition to making fundamental changes in agriculture safety nets, would restore the disaster relief programs. The current long-term farm bill expires at the end of September.
The top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, said that while he would vote for the disaster relief measure, "this bill is a sad substitute for what is really needed, a long-term farm policy." He said that while the legislation would help cattle and sheep farmers, "dairy and specialty crop producers will be left hurting and there is no assistance for pork and poultry producers."
Another Agriculture Committee Democrat, Jim Costa of California, said he opposed the bill. "The drought relief package that we are voting on I believe is sadly more about giving the Republican leadership relief when they go back to their districts in August than helping our nation's farmers, ranchers and dairymen."
The Senate in June passed, on a bipartisan vote, a five-year farm bill that revises crop subsidy programs, eliminating direct payments to farmers even when they don't plant crops, and authorizes 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 House bill because it cuts 2 percent, or $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 law. 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.
The head of the Senate Agricultural Committee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said after the House vote that "we have to address what's happening to livestock" but that it would be more appropriate to negotiate a compromise on the farm bill that includes comprehensive disaster relief and safety net provisions covering all food producers. She said informal talks would be held over the August recess with the intention of coming up a plan that could be offered to the House and Senate in September.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said his "priority remains to get a five-year farm bill on the books." But he said the more pressing issue was ensuring that drought-hit farmers were protected. "Vast areas of productive pastureland are burning up and our ranchers are in dire need."
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.
Also on Thursday, 156 lawmakers wrote Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson urging her to relax government rules requiring that a certain percentage of corn production go to making ethanol for transportation fuel.
"Relief from the Renewable Fuels Standard is extremely urgent because another short corn crop would be devastating to the animal agriculture industry, food manufacturers, food service providers, as well as consumers," said the letter sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Mike McIntyre, D-N.C. They said about 40 percent of the corn crop now goes into ethanol production.