Farm relief details on hold

Drought help tangled in budget showdown of Clinton, Congress

Aid likely, timing uncertain

Some formulas might shortchange Maryland

August 13, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Maryland's drought-stricken farmers are all but certain to receive some of the direct cash aid from the federal government they are hoping for, lawmakers say, but titanic political battles are likely to be fought before farmers learn just how much they will get and when.

The $7.6 billion emergency farm relief package passed by the Senate last week is caught in a budget and tax-cut showdown between the Clinton White House and the Republican-led Congress that could rage for months.

"There is a commitment to disaster relief; I'm sure it's going to get done," said Lisa Wright, a spokeswoman for Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican.

"How many twists and turns it takes before then I can't say."

The bigger question for Maryland farmers is how the final relief package will be designed.

Some of the one-size-fits-all formulas being considered in Congress work better for the large one-crop farm states than for the diverse, small-family farm culture of Maryland.

"Fair and simple are not the same things; in fact, they have an inverse relationship," said Parks Shakelford, associate administrator of the Farm Service Agency, which distributes federal farm aid.

"We think there ought to be some direct cash at a specified assistance level," he said.

"But Congress often has trouble agreeing on such details and leaves it up to us to work out, which can take a long time."

The Clinton administration's designation of Maryland as a federal agricultural disaster area this week made all farmers and agriculture-dependent businesses in the state eligible for low-interest loans.

Not much help here

But Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Bartlett and other Maryland officials say loans won't be much help for farmers deep in debt from a third year of poor crop yields and low prices on a glutted world market.

Instead, officials say, they need outright cash to cover their losses and to stay in business.

Congress appears sympathetic. Heavy media attention to the drought in the mid-Atlantic states has brought into sharper focus problems facing farmers nationwide, with the double whammy of low prices and regional weather disasters.

Senate Republican leaders managed to contain what Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, called "a bidding war" between the two parties last week to see who could do more.

`They want action'

Democrats made three failed attempts to increase the Republican proposal. In the end, they persuaded Republicans to raise their initial offer of $7 billion to $7.6 billion.

"I think farmers in many states have told their senators they want action, they want votes, they want at least an indication that something might happen, if it doesn't happen with finality," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican who is chairman of the Agriculture Committee.

"Many senators are feeling the pressure, and they are voting that way."

In the House, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the Republican whip, was furious at the Senate action. The House had passed its annual farm spending bill, with no disaster relief included.

DeLay called the Senate package an "atomic bomb" that would blow up his strategy for passing this year's spending bills without dipping into the Social Security surplus.

"It's a real problem we have to work on," he said. "I'm not ready to come up with a solution yet."

But, he acknowledged, "We're going to have to give more money to the farmers whether we like it or not."

At the moment, the main obstacle to an agreement between the White House and Congress is their dispute over the Republicans' $792 billion tax-cut bill.

Promise of veto in September

Clinton has vowed to veto the bill as soon as Congress sends it to him, after the lawmakers return in September from their summer recess.

He argues that such an enormous tax cut would likely wipe out the budget surplus that is needed to pay down the national debt and bolster Medicare and Social Security.

Potentially, Clinton and the Republican leaders could negotiate a smaller tax cut, and perhaps agree to take other steps Clinton wants to shore up Medicare and Social Security.

But prospects for a deal have dimmed as positions on both sides have hardened.

Senate leaders, in particular, do not want to give Clinton a second chance at a tax-cut bill this year. They are inclined to fight over the issue in next year's elections, when they would accuse the president and the Democrats of preferring to spend excess tax revenue rather than return it to voters in the form of tax cuts.

Frantically looking for money

DeLay is holding aside $5 billion to pay for the first small installment of the tax cut, while frantically looking for money to rescue the farmers.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert declared his commitment last week to dealing with the farm crisis, but he did not say where the money would come from.

"We just don't have those details," said John Feehrey, a Hastert spokesman. "All we know is it's going to be a lot of money that we weren't planning for."

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