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Drought Throws Off GOP Focus on Tax Cuts

House Leaders Mull Disaster Aid Options; Both Routes Troublesome Politically

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Delbert Craig shows Karis Gutter of the Agriculture Department and other visitors the drought damage to his pasture Thursday near Goreville, Ill. Seventy percent of the state is classified as experiencing some level of drought.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is fond of asking, “Where are the jobs?” The American Midwest is asking, “Where is the rain?”

The Congressional calendar this month has been full of little else but messaging bills and political posturing designed to shore up November voters, and this week looks to be no different, with a full extension of the George W. Bush-era tax rates on the House docket.

But try as it might to control the message, Congress cannot control the weather. A record drought is ensuring that despite its best efforts, Congress will have to do some actual bipartisan, bicameral legislating before it breaks for the August recess.

“Our livestock guys are in a world of hurt,” said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), who introduced a roughly $350 million livestock disaster aid bill last week. She said much of her state is in a category 4 drought, the worst there is.

House leaders grappled with the way forward: Either pass a yearlong extension of the 2008 farm bill with disaster aid attached or pass a stand-alone disaster relief bill. Either route is troublesome politically.

And either way, what was once a week meant to highlight the House GOP’s united stand to extend the entirety of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts will now become a quarrel over how to extend — and how to pay for — disaster aid. Rather than heading harmoniously into the August recess, the vote to dole out tens of millions of dollars in disaster aid is problematic for the GOP and highlights its divisions.

“The heat is definitely going to be turned up, and the one thing everyone can agree on is it’s untenable going into August without doing something on the drought,” a senior GOP aide said.

One GOP leadership aide confirmed that a yearlong extension of the 2008 farm bill with disaster aid attached will be on the House floor Wednesday.

That will anger conservatives, who tie the 2008 farm bill to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and are wary of leadership’s potential ulterior motives.

“Most conservatives don’t like the old farm bill any more than the new one, and we certainly won’t support any effort to use it as a vehicle to sneak the new farm bill past the House floor and go straight to conference committee,” one conservative aide said.

In an opposite stance, House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said last week that he would only support a short-term extension if it is used as a way to get to conference. That could cost the measure Democratic support.

Even if House leaders ultimately choose to decouple the aid from a farm bill, passing disaster aid has been a struggle this Congress. When Joplin, Mo., was leveled by tornadoes and Hurricane Irene slammed the East Coast last year, Republicans insisted any aid be offset with spending cuts elsewhere.

The same fight could rear its head this time around, as House leaders plan to pay for the measure by cutting direct farm payments and conservation spending.

“There are a lot of potential concerns depending on how they write the bill and what the end goal really is,” the conservative aide said. “To even be considered, it should reduce spending elsewhere to offset the cost. No gimmicks.”

The extremely arid conditions have devastated much of the country, but in particular those who raise livestock. Corn and soybean producers have been somewhat shielded from the drought because of crop insurance. Livestock farmers are not so lucky; their federal disaster relief program expired last year.

A vote on a short-term extension also gives Senate Democrats another opportunity to point out that the House has not moved on the farm bill while the Senate has.

“Our position is that there’s no good reason for the House not to take up and pass the Senate’s bipartisan farm bill. The House should not let petty politics get in the way of passing this important, bipartisan bill,” said Adam Jentleson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seems keen to address disaster aid in his home state of Kentucky. The Republican leader called Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Friday to discuss aid options.

“Kentucky farmers and livestock operators are very concerned they don’t have the tools readily available to enable them to manage the risk caused by the drought,” McConnell told him, according to a release. The Senator also urged Vilsack to “look at all legal authorities and budgetary options to assist Kentucky farmers.”

Senate Agriculture ranking member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), whose state has been hard-hit by the drought, said Thursday that his top priority is getting the drought relief done regardless of whether that has any connection to the farm bill.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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