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Congress can't agree on broad drought relief

Dry corn plants are a familiar site in Yutan, Neb., and across much of the Great Plains. The U.S. Drought Monitor survey shows extreme drought conditions in four Plains states.

Associated Press

Dry corn plants are a familiar site in Yutan, Neb., and across much of the Great Plains. The U.S. Drought Monitor survey shows extreme drought conditions in four Plains states.

WASHINGTON — As the drought worsened in the Midwest and Great Plains, Congress did not provide broad relief for farmers and ranchers before leaving for a month of campaigning Thursday.

The House did pass a scaled-down $383 million package primarily to help ranchers whose livestock losses and feed costs are mounting as arid conditions make land unusable for grazing. The vote was 223-197, with 35 mostly farm-state Democrats joining Republicans to pass it. Most Democrats held out for a broader farm bill.

"This House should not go home while literally hanging our ranchers out to dry without a safety net to get through this drought," said Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., who is from a ranching family.

But the Senate declined to consider the House bill before recessing.

Democrats, who control the chamber, prefer a broader bipartisan bill that would provide more robust drought relief to other agricultural sectors. That measure overwhelmingly passed the Senate last month. Democrats also object to the GOP's plan to offset the costs by cutting conservation funds.

"It's deeply troubling that the House would leave farmers and small businesses in the lurch," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "House leadership is doing what Congress always does - kicking the can down the road instead of coming together to solve problems."

The National Drought Mitigation Center said Thursday that arid conditions continued to intensify in Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced new aid for farmers and ranchers earlier this week. More than half the nation's counties have federal disaster designations, largely because of drought.

"It's hard to believe that it's getting worse, but it is, even with some rain in the region," said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Although a divisive debate over whether to extend tax cuts has dominated this Congress, lawmakers have sometimes found agreement on lower-profile measures. Late Wednesday, for example, Congress approved a measure to tighten sanctions on Iran, an attempt to stem the Islamic nation's nuclear ambitions by blocking U.S. companies from doing business in Iran's oil trade.

But drought aid proved too difficult. Farm-state senators from both parties appeared unwilling to separate the relief provisions from the broader farm bill, which they will try again to pass in fall.

Supporters of the House bill said ranchers needed immediate help. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, acknowledged the stopgap measure was not a long-term solution, but said, "It takes care of the problem."

drought intensifies in many areas

The drought has intensified in the most parched areas of the country, with more than a fifth of the contiguous United States experiencing "extreme" or "exceptional" drought, according to numbers released Thursday by the National Drought Mitigation Center. As lawmakers scrambled Thursday to put together a bill giving disaster relief to ranchers, much of the Great Plains continued to fry under cloudless skies. Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas are experiencing intensifying drought. "It's hard to believe that it's getting worse, but it is, even with some rain in the region," said climatologist Brian Fuchs in a statement released by the drought center, which is based at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Just three weeks ago, the portion of the lower 48 states receiving those two most serious drought designations stood at 11.6 percent. That area has now doubled, to 22.3 percent. The jump in the past week from 20.6 percent represents an increase of about 32 million acres. The geographical expanse of the drought has shrunk very slightly, but it remains historically high, with more than three-fifths of the lower 48 experiencing moderate drought or worse. That's an area that comes close to matching the sprawling drought of 1934 at the worst of the Dust Bowl era. The new statistics show that the areas that need rain the most aren't getting it, and there is little moisture on the horizon as the country continues to sizzle.

Washington Post

Congress can't agree on broad drought relief 08/03/12 [Last modified: Friday, August 3, 2012 12:35am]

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