By Tim Leeds
The farm bill closing in on a vote in Congress is empty of disaster relief, but aid for Montana's drought-stricken agriculture producers could be debated soon.
U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said today that he is trying to attach disaster relief to a supplemental appropriation for airline security that could come to a vote within two weeks.
"I'm going to be going in very hard to make sure our drought assistance is in there," Burns said, adding that he doubts he'll be able to secure as much aid as he originally desired.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., attached $2.4 billion in disaster relief to the Senate version of the farm bill, but the aid was stripped in the conference committee resolving the differences between the House and Senate versions. Burns said he expects a final vote on the conference report as early as Wednesday.
Disaster relief should have been approved in December but was overshadowed by the discussion of a comprehensive farm bill, Burns said.
Dallas Lawrence, communications director for Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said Rehberg and Earl Pomeroy, North Dakota's Democratic Representative, have been building a bipartisan coalition in the House in the interest of disaster relief. The coalition will support any work Burns does to attach disaster relief in the Senate, Lawrence said.
Baucus' spokesman Bill Lombardi said Baucus will work with the rest of the congressional delegation to attach disaster aid to an appropriate bill as quickly as possible.
"Because Montana farmers and ranchers need that assistance now," Lombardi said.
Burns said in a press release last week that he was considering voting against the farm bill released by the conference committee, but said today that he will vote for the bill.
"I think it's in the best interests of agriculture that we vote for it. I will probably vote for it," he said.
Burns, though, expects most of the issues in the farm bill to be revisited in less than two years due to several issues that have him concerned.
One dilemma, he said, is the bill supports crop prices rather than ensuring an income for farmers. That leads to overproduction and causes problems in world trade, Burns said.
Many countries the United States trades with will consider parts of the bill subsidies, which they will oppose in the interests of free trade, Burns said. When the United States puts an artificial price on grain and proclaims it free or unencumbered for trade, it's a very hard case to make, he said.
The final form country-of-origin labeling will take also has Burns concerned.
Details like which label will go on U.S. beef sent to feed houses in Canada could raise problems, he said.
Some sections of the bill will be helpful to Montana farmers and ranchers, Burns said, even though it favored other parts of the country more.
"At a time agriculture should be united we divided ourselves," he said. "The bill is very lucrative to southern folks. The small grain producer did not fare so well."