Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Congress can't agree on broad drought relief

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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."

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