The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill that provides $73.9 billion for USDA and related agencies for the new fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1.

If approved by the full Senate as expected, it will be the first agricultural appropriations bill that will not have been steered through the body by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., in several years. But, the legislation still bears Cochran's imprint, staff members said.

“This bill contains funding to support U.S. agriculture, conserve natural resources and provide nutrition assistance to many vulnerable Americans,” said Cochran, who is a senior member of the Appropriations Committee and the ranking Republican on the Agriculture Subcommittee.

The legislation also includes an increase of $173 million over last year's funding levels for agricultural research and Extension programs, an area that Cochran has championed for years. The Agricultural Research Service will receive $1.1 billion, and the Cooperative State, Research, Education and Extension Service is funded at $1 billion.

The bill provides $3.89 billion in authorized loan levels for agricultural credit programs for farmers and $979.7 million for USDA's conservation programs, an increase of $109 million above the 2001 fiscal year.

The committee approved $4.5 billion for rural housing loans and $708.5 million for rural housing rental assistance. In addition, the rural community advancement program will receive $842.2 million for loans and grants for rural water and sewer facilities.

“These programs will be very helpful to rural residents by providing them access to safe drinking water,” said Cochran.

The Senate is expected to consider the bill, possibly as early as this week. If it is approved, it will be referred to a House-Senate conference committee to resolve any differences in the bills passed by each chamber.