Congress Stalls on Summer Drought Assistance

Tiny shoots try to grow in the bed of a dried pond in this photo from July 31, 2012. The latest U.S. Drought Monitor survey shows an increase in extreme drought conditions in four Plains states but a slight decrease in the overall area of the lower 48 states experiencing some form of drought. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

By Summer Delaney

While the House of Representatives and the Senate have both voted to aid livestock producers affected by the extreme droughts plaguing the nation, that drought aid is unlikely to reach those who need it soon.

The two houses passed different versions of the drought assistance and soon they're off for a summer recess. An agreement on the drought assistance looks unlikely.

As the country faces severe drought conditions and Congress struggles to agree on a long-term farm bill, House Republicans opted today for $383 million in emergency assistance, although the Senate is unlikely to approve the measure. The relief bill would also restore authorization that lapsed last year for numerous programs that target livestock producers.

The House legislation, which passed by a vote of 223 to 197, picked up the support of 35 Democrats, while 46 Republicans voted against it.

The Senate voted June 21 on a package totaling nearly $1 trillion to set the nation's agricultural and food policy for the next five years. It also included some drought assistance.

Back in the lower chamber, supporters of the drought assistance package argued that Congress should act not only for producers but also for the entire nation.

"It's important to remember that it's not just farmers affected by this drought," Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said. "The consequences of this disaster impact all Americans from those living in the biggest cities to those living in the most remote areas of this country."

Democrats voting in opposition argued that the trade-offs for restoring old programs and proposing new financial policies is not worth slashing other programs, like food stamps, which face a $1.6 billion cut. Some Democrats, like Colorado Democrat Jared Polis, claim the bill only promotes the livestock industry.

"Our severe concerns around droughts in the West and across the country are critical," Polis said. "But we mustn't gut programs that are some of the very programs that can help prevent the impact of droughts in seeking to bail out a particular industry." He also contended that other factors, like climate change, must be considered when dealing with droughts, not just the proposition of a "cow bailout."

Democrats maintain that the legislation focuses on the wrong aspects of the problem by proposing a limited drought bill instead of one with an emphasis on farming. Minority House Leader Nancy Pelosi decried the bill as one written without proper time to debate or make modifications.

"Our economy needs us to have a farm bill," Pelosi, D-Calif., said. "We would like to see a farm bill come to the floor that then can go to conference and that can resolve this. This is a responsibility we know we have."

House Republicans remain divided on a long-term plan, although House Speaker John Boehner called today's action "responsible."

"You've got the left concerned about reductions in the food stamp program," Boehner, R-Ohio, said. "You've got the right who don't think they go - the cuts - go far enough in the food stamp program to bring it into compliance with what the law has been and frankly I haven't seen 218 votes in the middle the pass the [long-term] farm bill."

Lawmakers are now leaving Washington for summer recess over the next five weeks, returning to Washington for legislative business on September 10.