Some farmers are facing their second winter of discontent because of the actions of a senator who is slated to become the most powerful member of the upper chamber when the new Congress convenes in January.
For the second year in a row, Congress turned down an attempt to pass disaster assistance legislation, largely because of the words of Mississippi's Trent Lott, who was elected Senate majority leader in mid-November after helping Republicans regain control of the Senate.
Many analysts thought the chances a lame duck Congress would pass disaster aid legislation slim at best, but those odds dropped to zero when Lott objected to a vote on Montana Sen. Max Baucus' legislation. Baucus sought to have the measure adopted by unanimous consent.
Lott said the legislation had not received committee approval and that the cost projections for disaster assistance for the 2001 and 2002 crop years were unclear. (The Congressional Budget Office scored the legislation as costing $5.9 billion, but costs of the 2001 and 200 droughts could go higher.)
But he also said the Bush administration is continuing to look for ways to help farmers hurt by two years of drought and/or flooding in the West and Southeast and promised to have the Senate consider a new disaster bill when he becomes majority leader.
Lott's stance is sure to rankle Mississippi farmers suffering from two straight years of untimely rains that have caused significant yield and quality losses in what were thought to be better-than-average crops.
He spent last year's winter recess defending himself from criticism that he had lost touch with the farm community after Republicans blocked a pre-Christmas effort to pass a new farm bill that included a disaster assistance amendment. Reports said some family members even caught the ire of disgruntled producers.
While farmers who are barely hanging on to their farms will continue to be upset, the criticism is likely to be muted this time around because of the political realities that now prevail in Washington.
For openers, it was by no means a given that the disaster assistance legislation pushed by Baucus, outgoing Majority Leader Tom Daschle and other Democrats would have become law. The legislation appeared to be going nowhere in the House, and the administration showed no signs of backing away from its opposition to the package.
As Lott noted, the administration, tired of getting beat up by the national news media over the cost of farm programs, has insisted that any disaster assistance funding be offset by spending cuts in the farm bill.
Baucus and other proponents of the legislation — including Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. — argued that the assistance could be paid for by the nearly $6 billion in projected farm bill savings. But Lott said he wasn't sure Congress could do that.
When you add the fact that some farm organization leaders were never that hot on disaster assistance legislation — because they feared that the costs eventually would be borne by the farm bill — you can see why the winter of 2002-03 might not be as unpleasant for the majority-leader-to-be as the last one.