WASHINGTON (AP) — Although federal lawmakers have agreed to provide $350 million to dairy farmers, they were haggling Thursday on just how to dish out most of the money.
Led by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Eastern lawmakers pushed for the system already in use, a program that pays farmers when prices fall but caps benefits after they produce 3 million pounds of milk. Western lawmakers, however, want a different method, saying the current system disproportionately benefits small dairy farmers.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she was requesting an urgent meeting with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to discuss the matter and promised to object to any vote on a larger agriculture bill before she met with Vilsack.
Boxer said she had serious concerns the spending "will be used in a way that discriminates against dairies in Western states."
Dairy subsidies are often a thorny issue in Congress provoking regional fights.
Under an agreement struck Wednesday, $60 million would be set aside to cover purchases of surplus cheese and other dairy products, but there were no specifics on how the remaining $290 million would be distributed. The Agriculture Department has not said how it will pass out the money.
"On this issue you try your best to be as objective as possible and as sensitive as you can to other regions' points of view, but ... you have to represent your states interests and fight very hard," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who favors the same approach as Schumer.
Schumer told reporters that he is worried that the money would be allocated on a per cow basis, a formula that is less advantageous for New York dairy farmers, who tend to have fewer cattle.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., whose state is home to much larger dairy operations, said the compromise is not perfect but "the best deal that California could get."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who helped to craft the dairy legislation, said there is always an element of regional bias in dairy issues, but he said he is confident the compromise will help dairy farmers nationwide.
"I think there's a pretty strong consensus that we want to help everybody," Sanders said.
Associated Press writer Kim Hefling contributed to this report.