WASHINGTON – Congressman Charlie Stenholm introduced a $3 billion legislative package to provide agricultural disaster assistance for 2003 and 2004 disasters in response to an increased need expressed by agricultural groups and the nation's farmers and ranchers.

The bill, H.R. 5203, was co-sponsored by Republicans, including Congressman Randy Neugebauer, and Democrats. It is identical to bipartisan legislation passed in the U.S. Senate and included as part of the funding package for the Department of Homeland Security for fiscal year 2005.

"On Sept. 27th, the President requested supplemental funding to cover only losses that occurred as a result of hurricanes and tropical storms in 2004," Stenholm said. "I believe that fairness requires that assistance be provided on the same basis for all producers affected by disaster – including freezing weather, drought, flood or excessive rain."

Neugebauer, who is running against Stenholm in their combined district, also pushes for disaster assistance for farmers and ranchers who suffered losses in either 2003 or 2004.

"Although the bill that already contains disaster relief is going to conference, this is a show of support for farmers throughout the country that representatives from both parties can get behind,” he said. “I support this effort and hope Congressman Stenholm will work with me as I am working with him.”

H.R. 5203 provides emergency assistance in the form of a Crop Disaster Program, Quality Loss Program, the Tree Assistance Program and the Livestock Assistance Program. Assistance would be paid for eligible losses during the 2003 or 2004 production years, but not both years.

"When the President made his request to Congress, he proposed to designate the requested spending for 2004 hurricane losses as emergency requirements," Stenholm said. "My legislation also provides for an emergency designation. Under my legislation, the Department of Agriculture may only expend the funds if the President agrees with the emergency spending designation."

At the same time as Stenholm's bill was introduced, the Senate leadership was considering a scaled-back drought assistance package designed to overcome the objections of senators who were resisting the call for disaster assistance for agriculture.

Specifically, the Senate leadership is proposing a $1.6 billion drought relief package that would be partially paid for by making cuts in mandatory programs in the 2002 Farm Bill.

Stenholm rejected this approach.

"Producers need help now. We need to get it done," Stenholm said.

Neugebauer has been working in recent weeks to build a coalition of support in the House that can get a disaster package approved.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com