Congressman Max Burns of Georgia introduced the Emergency Agricultural Disaster Assistance Act of 2003. Burns, a freshman Republican, then took to the House floor to urge other members to support his bill.

The fact that Burns made his first remarks on the House floor — and offered his first bill — on disaster assistance is testimony to the fact that the issue is still alive and well in Washington.

The bill was one of several disaster assistance measures introduced as the 108th Congress convened in January. Others were offered by Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Sen. Pat Roberts and Rep. Jerry Moran, both of Kansas, and Rep. Tom Osborne of Nebraska.

Burns lined up eight co-sponsors for his bill, including Reps. Bud Cramer and Mike Rogers of Alabama, Sanford Bishop and Jack Kingston of Georgia, Chip Pickering of Mississippi, Robin Hayes and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina and Virgil Goode of Virginia.

The Burns bill has a different wrinkle than other measures in that it compensates producers for quantity and quality crop losses that occurred in 2002 due to damaging weather rather than losses in 2001 and 2002.

It also authorizes qualifying producers for USDA's 2002 Livestock Compensation to receive payments if they were unable to receive assistance for losses in 2001 or 2002. Osborne's bill would allow producers to choose the year they suffered the most losses, either 2001 or 2002, to receive funding under the Crop Disaster Program.

The Burns bill is scored at $2.86 billion, while Osborne says his would cost about $3 billion and Moran's about $3.4 billion. Daschle's amendment to the Senate Interior Appropriations bill last fall would have cost $5.6 billion.

As the bills hit the hopper, about 100 farmers, ranchers and rural business leaders, including two National Cotton Council representatives, were in Washington, urging their Congressmen to provide assistance to cover financial losses in 2001 and 2002.

North Carolina's Ronnie Fleming, president of Southern Cotton Growers, and Rickey Bearden, vice president of Texas' Plains Cotton Growers Association, were among representatives of 36 farm groups in Washington to seek assistance.

At the Cotton Council's Beltwide Conferences in Nashville, a spokesman said the NCC is committed to winning new legislation, but not at the expense of its hard-won gains in the farm bill — an exchange that the Bush administration insists on.

Asked about a suggestion in this column that the final 2002 counter-cyclical payments be moved up to this spring if no disaster aid is forthcoming, Craig Brown, the NCC's vice president for producer affairs, said the Council would be opposed to anything that required re-opening the farm bill.

Brown told participants in the Delta Council scholarship program that amending the farm bill, which changing the CC payments would require, could also bring amendments for lower payment limits or other spending reductions.

Acknowledging that producers are having trouble cash flowing their operations because the balance of the CC payments won't be made until next fall, Brown urged that lenders treat the payments as assets because current price averages indicate growers will receive a 2002 counter-cyclical payment at the maximum rate of 13 cents per pound.