North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad came up three votes short in his latest attempt to persuade the Senate to consider disaster assistance legislation for farmers and ranchers hurt by drought, floods or hurricanes in 2005.

The Senate voted 57-37 Tuesday (Dec. 5) on a point of order raised by New Hampshire’s Judd Gregg, the chairman of the Budget Committee, who complained that Conrad’s amendment to the agricultural appropriations bill would add $4.9 billion to the federal deficit. Sixty votes were needed to override the parliamentary maneuver.

Conrad, who has now introduced three disaster bills in the last 12 months, vowed he would not give up his fight to try to win help for farmers and ranchers in North Dakota and other states to natural disasters.

“We intend to bring this up until we prevail,” he said. “We have enough votes to pass this bill. Our farm and ranch families really face a desperate situation, but with the added strength from the elections, the next Congress will pass this bill.”

Conrad was referring to Democrats winning control of Congress in the Nov. 7 elections. The shift in power will make Conrad chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and Gregg, the current chairman, the ranking minority member.

Although the vote on the proposed amendment was largely symbolic since Congress is not expected to pass an agricultural appropriations bill before it adjourns for the Christmas holidays, Conrad said his side could just as easily have won the budget point of order fight.

“We had three senators who had announced their support for the amendment who could not be here today,” he noted. “If they had been here, we would have won.” (The three, who were not named, reportedly were campaigning for the presidency.)

Sen. Gregg, who was joined by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in his opposition to the bill, said it was the wrong bill for a time when the federal deficit is at record levels due to the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the federal tax cuts that Congress has passed in recent years.

“I cannot believe we are here today considering legislation that would add $4.9 billion to the federal debt,” said Gregg. The Bush administration and Republican lawmakers have argued that any spending for disaster assistance should be offset by cuts in spending in other areas.

Conrad said Congress must pass the emergency relief to help farmers who have experienced losses not only from natural disasters but also from the high fuel and fertilizer prices that occurred after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

“A lot of my neighbors are going to be gone because we have had such an extraordinarily unusual weather cycle in North Dakota,” he said. “If we do not pass this, then tens of thousands of farm families are going to be at their bankers in coming weeks, and they’re going to be given the grim news that they’re done, that they’re finished.”

Congress has agreed to provide disaster assistance for farmers who suffered losses due to Katrina and Rita, but has ignored the pleas of farmers who have experienced reduced crop yields from droughts, flooding and freezes, the North Dakota senator said.

“Farmers outside the areas hit by the hurricanes have not received anything,” he said. “Those farmers have suffered losses every bit as severe as those sustained following the hurricanes along the Gulf Coast.

The Conrad bill drew support from several Republicans including a co-sponsor, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, and from Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the chairmen of the Senate Appropriations and Agriculture Committees.

But Chambliss told reporters the bill did not go far enough because it had been scaled down to cover disasters that only occurred in 2005.

“In August 2006, 155 of 159 counties in Georgia were designated by the secretary of agriculture as primary natural disaster areas due to losses caused by drought and excessive temperatures,” said Chambliss. “At the current time, we may not know the full extent of the 2006 crop damage, but it is evident in looking across the country that crop and livestock assistance is needed.”

The National Farmers Union, American Farm Bureau, American Soybean Association and 29 other farm and farm-related organizations sent a letter to the Senate urging its members to vote for the Conrad amendment.

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