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Freeze relief debated in bills

The deal-cutting season starts now for San Joaquin Valley freeze relief.

By this morning, the Senate will pass an emergency spending bill that includes funding for California farmers, farmworkers, dairy producers and small-business owners. It's more money than the House offered, so lawmakers must negotiate a final package.

"We've worked hard to get where we are," said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "The losses have been substantial, the disasters have been large, and families that ... lose their farms if they can't make the payments, can be helped by this. So I hope it remains in."

Nonetheless, several potential sticking points will confront congressional negotiators in coming weeks. These include:

Juggling numbers. The Senate bill offers $40 million to help citrus producers replace trees damaged by a sharp January freeze. The competing House bill offers $20 million for the same purpose. In negotiations like this, lawmakers often simply split the difference.

Targeting crops. The House bill includes a $25 million package for California spinach producers who lost sales because of an E. coli-contamination scare last year. The Senate does not include similar funding, and budget hawks have highlighted the spinach money as unnecessary.

Targeting the needy. The Senate bill includes $100 million for farmworkers and small-business owners hurt by natural disasters. The House bill does not offer this money, and some conservatives are leery of public funds going to help illegal immigrant workers.

Defining disasters. Both House and Senate bills cover the waterfront, with money for disasters ranging from freeze to drought. Some critics question this wide scope, which includes in the Senate bill $95 million for farmers who lost milk production due to last summer's blazing heat.

"When some people saw that there was also an appropriation for dairy milk loss, some people actually laughed," Feinstein said, "and I was really offended, because [last July] California experienced two weeks of blistering triple-digit temperatures."

Taken together, the agricultural aid proposals account for roughly $4 billion in legislation primarily designed to fund the U.S. war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. Language setting timetables for a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq has already drawn a White House veto threat. The Iraq language fight, in turn, could shape what the rest of the 169-page bill looks like when bargaining stops.

"This is something where the leadership will have to go down the street to the White House," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.

Already, the Bush administration has admonished Congress for stuffing the Iraq war bill with domestic provisions. The White House has not specified any of the farm items, so far, but the general unhappiness is clear.

"This bill adds billions in unrequested spending that is largely unjustified and nonemergency," the White House's Office of Management and Budget warned.

House and Senate bills reflect different political imperatives. The Senate bill, for instance, includes the $95 million for dairy farmers whose cows died or dried up during a San Joaquin Valley heat wave that drove temperatures above 105 degrees. More than 30,000 cows and calves died in California last summer, while surviving cows produced less milk.

"And what's more," Feinstein added, "this funding can be accessed by dairymen on the Gulf Coast, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, who also suffered losses."

But the House proposes something different. There, the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee is a Wisconsin Democrat, Rep. David Obey. Obey insisted on a $252 million dairy provision whose primary beneficiaries will be the smaller dairy producers in the Midwest and Northeast.

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