By Jerry Hagstrom

DTN Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (DTN)--The Senate has not passed the bill to which agricultural disaster aid is attached--the fiscal year 2003 Interior Department appropriations bill--but speculation has already begun about what might happen in the House, where the conservative Republican leadership has opposed the measure without cuts in other federal spending.

House action on an agricultural disaster aid bill appears to be focused on the conference between the House and the Senate on the Interior bill, but a House Agriculture Committee oversight hearing on the crop insurance program could also play a role in the passage of disaster legislation, according to Sept. 10 interviews with key figures on the issue.

The Senate passed an agricultural disaster aid amendment to the Interior appropriations bill Sept. 10 on a voice vote after voting 79 to 16 in a roll call vote to waive the budget rules for the measure. The Bush administration has maintained that any agriculture disaster relief should come out of the farm bill, but White House spokesman Ari Fleischer Sept. 10 indicated a softening of that position.

A spokesman for House Agriculture Chairman Larry Combest, R-TX, said of the agriculture disaster legislation, "Right now it is an appropriations matter. They have a lot of amendments on that interior bill. If they can pass that bill intact and go to conference, it is in the hands of the appropriators at that point."

Asked if Combest had any views on whether Congress should pass disaster aid and whether it should be offset, the spokesman said Combest has constituents who need aid, but "the chairman would be unwilling to see the farm bill changed after two and a half years of partnership with producers who make decisions based" on the provisions of the bill.

Rep. John Thune, R-SD, who is running for the Senate against Sen. Tim Johnson, D-SD, told DTN he believes the Interior appropriations conference is the most likely setting in which the House will work on aid. Thune said he believes the Senate action will "get this thing moving" and that the letter from CBO saying that the farm bill will cost $5.6 billion less than expected in FY03 will also "be helpful" in getting the House to take action on disaster aid and "putting something on the President's desk that he will sign." Thune does not sit on the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee and therefore cannot be a conferee on the bill, but said he believes Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., and Subcommittee Chairman Joe Skeen, R-NM, will push disaster aid in conference. A Nethercutt spokeswoman said he would champion the issue with the Interior subcommittee.

Thune, who has introduced drought relief legislation that formally uses unspent farm bill funds to pay for drought relief to avoid deficit spending, said "Congress has the opportunity to combine the best parts of my drought relief legislation and the Senate bill to include drought relief in the final version of the Interior bill. Why wouldn't we do everything we can to be fiscally responsible when we have this great opportunity? With a bill that uses my funding mechanism we will have a better chance of gaining the support of the House conferees and the President for drought relief."

The need for drought aid has raised questions about the crop insurance program, and House Agriculture Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management Chairman Saxby Chambliss, R-GA, has scheduled a hearing on September 18 on implementation of the Agricultural Risk Protection Act and the effectiveness of the federal crop insurance program. U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency Administrator Ross J. Davidson, Jr. is scheduled to testify at the hearing. Chambliss is also running for the Senate, trying to unseat Sen. Max Cleland, D-GA.

House Agriculture ranking member Charles Stenholm, D-TX, also said he is opposed to changes in the farm program and suggested that the hearing on crop insurance may provide insights into what is needed to address farm disasters. Asked his reaction to the Senate vote, Stenholm said, "It doesn't surprise me that the Senate has chosen to bust the budget. I don't what the House will do." Asked if he has received pressure from members to exert leadership in favor of disaster aid, Stenholm said he has received more requests from Republicans than Democrats but that he expects Rep. Collin Peterson, D-MN, and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-ND, to take up the issue.

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