By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives will act on aid to livestock producers hurt by the worst drought in half a century, Speaker John Boehner said on Thursday, but there was no agreement on how to do it with Congress a week away from its summer vacation.
Two-thirds of the continental United States was under moderate to exceptional drought with 40 percent of U.S. counties declared agricultural disaster areas. While crop insurance will aid many growers, livestock producers face sky rocketing feed prices and drought-stunted pastures.
The Obama administration has opened environmentally fragile land, normally off-limits, for haying and grazing but can do little else. Programs that allowed the Agriculture Department to share the cost of feed or help fruit, vegetable and tree farmers expired at the end of 2011.
"I do believe the House will address the livestock disaster program that unfortunately in the last farm bill was only authorized for four years," said Boehner, who directs legislation in the House.
Boehner said Republican leaders were working with the Agriculture Committee "on an appropriate path forward." A press aide for House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas said there was no decision on a legislative vehicle.
While a stand-alone disaster bill was possible, some farm lobbyists say disaster aid could be wrapped into a one-year extension of the 2008 farm law, which expires on September 30. There is little chance for Congress to agree on a new law by then.
When asked about a one-year farm bill, a Boehner aide said, "No decision have been made at this point." Lawmakers resorted to six short-term extensions of farm law before the 2008 law was completed, one year later than intended.
Steny Hoyer, the assistant Democratic leader in the House, said the Republicans were ready to punt on a new, full-scale farm bill because of disagreements on how much to cut spending.
Major farm groups prefer passage of a five-year farm bill this year rather than an extension of the current law. Pressure for budget cuts are expected to increase in the new year.
An extension would wipe out reforms that approved by the Senate in farm subsidies and crop insurance but avert a fight over a House proposal for the deepest cuts since the 1990s in food stamps for the poor. One of the major reforms in the House and Senate farm bills is elimination of the $5 billion a year "direct payment" subsidy paid to cotton, grain and soybeans growers regardless of need.
(Reporting By Charles Abbott; Editing by Neil Stempleman)
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