Despite a looming deadline, House-Senate conferees are continuing negotiations on an agriculture disaster aid package, and all hope is not lost that a compromise can be reached. A Feb. 10 conference meeting to determine the fate of Sen. Thad Cochran’s “Agricultural Assistance Act” continued past midnight, but no agreement was reached, and conferees were back at the table again first thing the morning of Feb. 11.

“During the conference negotiations last night (Feb. 10), Sen. Cochran laid the Senate position on the table and the House side objected. The conference then adjourned for the night to meet again today,” says Hunter Moorhead, legislative assistant to Cochran. “The Senate has yet again proposed an alternative to provide disaster assistance that is more targeted to address the desires of individual House members. The negotiations are ongoing and senators continue to insist upon disaster assistance to farmers.”

Whatever delivery mechanism is agreed to, if there is one, the two sides also apparently disagree on where the money will come from to pay for aid to farmers. One source says the money will more than likely have to come out of those dollars allocated in the 2002 farm bill.

Approved by the Senate by a vote of 59 to 35, Cochran’s disaster relief package began running into problems early with some House members of the conference committee voicing resistance to Cochran’s plan. No vote was cast on the package in the Feb. 10 meeting, but sources say House members made it clear they would not accept Cochran’s Agriculture Assistance Act as written.

Conferees of the Senate Omnibus Appropriations Bill are running out of time to resolve the issue of whether or not to go with the Senate’s disaster relief language. According to a Senate Agriculture Committee spokesman, conference members plan to conclude work on the 2003 Omnibus Bill in time for a vote on the House floor either Feb. 12 or Feb. 13, and on the Senate floor the following day.

The latest proposal by Senate conferees targets disaster assistance more selectively to those producers who experienced higher losses. Disaster assistance would still be available to those producers located in counties designated as disaster areas, according to Conference sources.

Staff members of the House and Senate agriculture committees worked over the weekend of Feb. 7-9, and a compromise seemed to be in the making. However, by the afternoon of Feb. 10, one staffer summed up the situation saying, “I thought we were making progress this past weekend, but now we’re back to square one. We have not come to an agreement.”

The crux of disaster aid approval by a House-Senate conference appears to come down to two issues — targeting and timing. Conference members agree that any aid should be targeted to those people that need it, and the money needs to get in producers’ hands as quickly as possible.

Those two factors are working against each other to an extent. If you get down to certain level of certainty that you are only getting those producers whom had a documented loss, it takes more proof and more time to distribute the aid where it is most needed.

According to conference sources, House members continue to have concerns about which producers receive assistance. “The Senate Agriculture Committee staff believes they have made progress toward a compromise. It’s fair to say the House Agriculture Committee staff does not feel the same,” a Senate Agriculture Committee spokesman says.

The Senate-passed Cochran plan would have delivered disaster relief to producers in counties with a 2001 or 2002 disaster designation, and in neighboring counties with losses of at least 35 percent in either year. Delivery of disaster aid would be based on 42 percent of the producer’s direct payment under the 2002 farm bill. The 42 percent formula is similar to historic disaster programs that pay on 65 percent of production at 65 percent of market price, because 65 percent of 65 percent equals 42 percent.

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com.