WASHINGTON (B)--A House-Senate conference panel May 24 approved compromise legislation to provide U.S. farmers with a new $8.2 billion crop insurance program over five years, as well as $7.1 billion in financial aid for farmers.

Both houses of Congress have already approved similar versions of the crop insurance bill, and the committee's approval of the compromise May 24 will send it back for new floor votes, where it is expected to pass in both the House and Senate.

Congressional aides said new floor votes were held May 25 in both the House and Senate.

Kenneth Ackerman, a USDA administrator, told reporters after the conference vote that the department is pleased with the panel's decision to improve the government crop insurance program by significantly boosting premiums for farmers with the bulk of the $8.2 billion.

The separate component of the bill that authorizes the USDA to give $7.1 billion in financial assistance to farmers is split up over fiscal years 2000 and 2001, with the lion's share set to be paid out almost immediately.

The USDA is now mandated to pay out $5.5 billion in supplemental cash payments to farmers under the existing Agricultural Marketing Transition Act by Sept. 30 under guidelines of pre-existing formulas. These funds will be directed toward producers of major crops such as wheat, corn, cotton and rice.

The remaining $1.6 billion will be paid out mainly to specialty crop producers in fiscal 2001.

USDA officials attending the conference committee--such as Ackerman and Undersecretary Gus Schumacher--would not comment on the $7.1 billion in additional AMTA payments, which won out over President Bill Clinton's less expensive proposal to tie emergency financial aid directly to actual crop losses over the next two years.

Democrat Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, a member of the conference panel and the Agriculture Committee, said, "I am amazed we are making AMTA payments based on 20-year-old data."

Harkin used his own state as a demonstration of why he believed the AMTA system is unfair to farmers. He said that just 12 large AMTA recipients in Iowa receive 50% of all the payments.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest, R-TX, told other panel members that he recognized the controversy around AMTA payments but stressed they are the best vehicle for the aid because it is the quickest method of getting money to financially strapped farmers.

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