WASHINGTON – South Dakota Sens. Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson have written to President Bush asking him to divert funds from a child nutrition program to help farmers suffering from the 2001 and 2002 droughts.

The letter from Daschle, the Senate Majority Leader, and Johnson, a Democrat locked in a bitter re-election struggle with Republican Rep. John Thune, showed some exasperation with the administration’s efforts to address the drought through emergency haying and grazing orders and releases of conservation funds.

“For 214 days, we have urged you to support immediate emergency natural disaster assistance,” they said in their Sept. 16 letter. “As you know, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan emergency natural disaster assistance package for America’s farmers and ranchers by a vote of 79 to 16.

“We believe this proposal, which has the support of 31 major farm organizations, is absolutely necessary and the most effective way to provide meaningful and immediate assistance to producers coping with the relentless drought and other natural disasters. We respectfully urge you to review your position and support this approach.

Meanwhile, the senators said, they have continued to urge the administration to do all it can to assist farmers and ranchers with the existing resources available at USDA, including the use of discretionary programs.

“In this regard, we believe that Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has broad authority under 7 U.S.C. 612c, commonly referred to as “Section 32,” to direct existing USDA funds for emergency disaster assistance.”

While Section 32 funding normally is used to pay for direct purchases of farm products and commodities for use in school lunch programs, the senators cited a Congressional Research Service report that USDA has a fiscal year 2002 balance of several hundred million dollars remaining in those funds.

“We reiterate our call on you do all that you can with existing authorities and suggest that you immediately provide emergency drought aid for America’s producers from this fund,” they said.

“While we recognize that the primary functions of Section 32 is to support important child nutrition programs and commodity purchases, we nevertheless believe that a portion of the Section 32 balance should be devoted to disaster assistance. Such funding could serve as a partial bridge of assistance for producers until action has been taken on a comprehensive natural disaster assistance package.

There were reports that USDA might announce the use of Section 32 funds for disaster assistance later this week.

The senators said farmers are grateful that USDA has been using some existing tools to assist in the overall natural disaster effort, but that the approach continues to amount to little more than a “patchwork of half-measures and partial remedies.

“None of these come close to addressing the scope of need facing farmers, ranchers and rural Americans impacted by the devastating conditions,” they noted. “As we have said in the past, while it is our hope that the new farm bill will obviate the need for ad hoc economic disaster assistance to address low prices, natural disasters are a different matter altogether that can not be planned for in advance.

“Only a comprehensive natural disaster assistance program will help rural Americans through this difficult time.”

Rep. Thune, meanwhile, has also been seeking additional help for farmers in South Dakota and other states.

According to reports, he has also asked Veneman to use her discretionary authority to release funds for immediate disaster assistance to farmers and livestock producers in areas decimated by drought.

Thune is also co-sponsoring House legislation that includes language similar to the Senate amendment to the Interior appropriations bill that would provide $6 billion in disaster relief and has asked Speaker Dennis Hastert to move forward on the legislation before the House adjourns in early October.

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