WASHINGTON, D.C. — The debate over a $3.1 billion disaster package continues to hold up passage of the 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, which contains nearly $400 billion in annual government appropriations. In addition, there is now talk among some in Washington, D.C., of re-opening the 2002 farm bill.

"Some bad ideas have circulated during these discussions, but this is by far the worst that I have heard. The farm bill was a very carefully negotiated agreement, and once you reopen it, it essentially becomes a piggy bank susceptible to the whims of others," says Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. "It is the strongly held opinion of the Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee that re-opening the farm bill is simply not in the interest of the American farming community."

With the process already more than a day behind schedule, neither side of the debate appears to be backing down. In an effort to move things along, the debate over disaster aid was kicked up Tuesday (Feb. 12) to the offices of Vice President Dick Cheney, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Sen. Ted Stevens, (chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and chairman of the House-Senate conference committee), Rep. Bill Young (chairman of the House Appropriations Committee), and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.

During a Feb. 10 conference meeting, Sen. Thad Cochran told his fellow conferees, "We have exhausted our efforts in the Senate." Cochran detailed several ways, he says, the Senate has accommodated House demands, including shoehorning an additional $18.2 million for citrus, $15 million for tax adjustments related to tuberculosis in cattle, and $2 million for tobacco in the $3.1 billion disaster package.

While senators on the House-Senate Conference believe House members have failed to compromise on most issues, House conferees continue to focus the debate on targeting assistance to those growers who suffered the greatest losses.

"We remain united behind the idea that any program to provide drought relief should be targeted. Farmers that did not suffer a loss should not be paid," says Goodlatte. "If the disaster assistance is not going to be targeted, and if it is going to come at the expense of the farm bill, it calls into question whether or not producers are ultimately going to benefit."

The crux of disaster aid approval by a House-Senate conference comes 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.

Both sides of the debate agree the money needs to get in producers' hands as quickly as possible. One recent proposal by Senate conferees tightens up qualification requirements by changing eligibility from all counties declared a disaster, to only those where a program commodity crop was hit at disaster level as designated by FSA. Under this proposal, producers could still self-certify with the Farm Service Agency, and be paid for, a greater loss.

Where will the money come from to pay for disaster aid? A Feb. 4 letter from Mitch Daniels, director of the Office of Management and Budget, appears to leave some wiggle room saying that it must be offset within existing agriculture funding. That could mean the farm bill, but it could also mean agriculture appropriations for 2003.

One commodity group leader stated Wednesday (Feb. 12), "Everyone wants a piece of the pie and there's not enough pie to go around. We are violently opposed to re-opening the farm bill."

Political insiders say there are a number of avenues to take monies and cut programs from the farm bill with payment limitations and crop insurance likely among the first to be cut.

Conferees of the Senate Omnibus Appropriations Bill are running out of time to resolve the issue of whether to go with the Senate's disaster relief language, or not. 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 by Thursday (Feb. 13), and on the Senate floor the following day.

As one Senate staffer put it, "If the deadline passes without any action taken by Congress, it will essentially leave $3.1 billion dollars on the table that farmers need."

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com.