House Passes Drought Relief for Ranchers

House passes bill to help cattlemen, but Senate unlikely to take it up.

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Just hours before Congress jets off for summer vacation, members in the House of Representatives took a small step forward to help ranchers struggling to keep herds alive in the worst drought the country's seen in 25 years.

The House passed a disaster relief bill Thursday by a margin of 223 to 196, although it's unclear if the Senate will even take up the bill after the August recess.

The $383 million emergency legislation provides payments to cattle and sheep ranchers who have lost livestock in the drought and assists them with monthly feed costs, which have skyrocketed as grazing lands are scorched by the nationwide heat wave.

The payments would reimburse ranchers for 75 percent of their losses and provide assistance to fruit tree and honeybee farmers.

The 2008 farm bill doesn't expire until September 30, but the disaster relief provision protecting ranchers and specialty crop growers from natural disasters expired last year.

While members of Congress agreed action needed to be taken, many argued the House should have spent its time authorizing a new five-year farm bill rather than wasting its final hours on a short-sighted drought fix. [More Evidence It's Time to Dump Ethanol.]

"Weathering a natural disaster without the certainty of a five-year bill could damage one of the bright spots we have in this economy," said Democratic Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking member of the House Agricultural Committee.

The committee's chairman Rep. Frank Lucas, who pushed for immediate drought relief, signaled passing the five-year farm bill remained his top priority. Over the past week, Lucas floated the idea of loading the relief bill on top of a one-year farm bill extension, but he failed to garner the support needed to pass it.

The House Agriculture Committee passed a bipartisan five-year farm bill out of committee on July 11, but House leadership has kept the bill off the floor knowing disagreements over food assistance programs within the Republican party would reveal major party schisms.

"I hope for a conference, the same way I wish for rain," says Iowa Democrat Rep. Leonard Boswell. "But Republican leadership has taken every chance they can to block it from coming to the floor."

Most Democrats opposed the emergency relief bill because it would come at the expense of certain conservation programs.

Despite their resistance, however, some Democrats from rural districts voted for the temporary relief bill knowing they'd have to face hard-hit constituents in their districts.

Ranchers around the country aren't ready to pat Congress on the back though.

Many are appalled the House would cut conservation programs so drastically at a time when drought has paralyzed 75 percent of the country's grazing lands.

"I appreciate they want to do something, but this isn't it," says Jess Peterson, a Montana rancher and government affairs director at the U.S. Cattlemen's Association. "Congress is robbing Peter to pay Paul, and they aren't thinking straight."[Post Office Can't Pay Its Bills, Congress Punts.]

"Some people don't like how we paid for the bill and quite frankly I don't either," Lucas admitted on the floor Thursday.

Scott Faber, the vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working group, said the House's relief program would "cut the very conservation programs that help farmers mitigate drought conditions." [House Leaders Wary of Farm, Postal Service Showdown.]

"This is a shortsighted and counterproductive move," he says.