Lawmakers work on aid to farmers

— The cost of bailing out the nation's farm economy reached $8 billion as Republican congressional leaders introduced their plan to aid growers who have been hurt by low prices or lost crops to droughts and floods.

The GOP plan, released Tuesday, closely tracks a $7.4 billion package that the Senate attached last month to an agricultural spending bill. But it added $500 million for weather-related losses.

Most of the money would go toward compensating farmers for a second year of depressed commodity prices.

Democrats were expected to push for hundreds of millions of dollars more in disaster aid, but some conceded that the $8 billion plan would be approved by the House-Senate conference committee that was writing the final version of the appropriations bill.

GOP leaders, struggling to find a way to pay for even the $8 billion without raiding the Social Security surplus, refused to go any higher, said Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the lead Senate negotiator on the spending bill.

''We're up against the limit on our allocation,'' Cochran said.

Republicans had hoped to finish work on the appropriations bill late Tuesday but the negotiations were put off until today because of a disagreement over dairy policy.

Cochran said Congress could consider additional aid in 2000 to cover this year's crop losses. North Carolina lawmakers were expected to seek $1 billion or more for crops and livestock destroyed by Hurricane Floyd.

''We expect the administration to monitor the situation closely'' and request more money if it's needed, Cochran said.

Agriculture Department officials say they need $1 billion to compensate farmers for losses that already had occurred this year from drought in the East and flooding in the upper Midwest.

Mary Kay Thatcher, a lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the GOP proposal was ''woefully inadequate.''

Republicans control both the House and Senate, and one of the Democratic negotiators, North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, said Republicans had the votes to pass the $8 billion plan. ''They're not talking to us,'' he said.

The House did not have the farm assistance in its version of the appropriations bill.

Grain prices plummeted during the financial crisis in Asia and have yet to recover because of overproduction worldwide. Prices for corn and soybeans are at their lowest levels in more than a decade.

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