Push is on to find $1.15B for black farmers' settlement

If Congress does not appropriate the money by March 31, then any of the participants could back out of the deal.

Obama administration officials and congressional leaders will continue negotiating Thursday on how Congress can pass a $1.15 billion appropriation to settle the black farmers' discrimination case against the Agriculture Department, an aide to House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers said late Wednesday.

"They're still talking. The conversations will roll into tomorrow," the Conyers aide said after emerging from a meeting between Conyers, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and National Black Farmers Association President John Boyd.

Time is of the essence because an agreement that USDA and the Justice Department worked out with the black farmers' lawyers says that if Congress does not appropriate the money by March 31, any of the participants -- the farmers, their lawyers or the administration -- can walk away from the deal.

Boyd said he has not decided what action his group would take if the appropriation is not passed by the deadline. The black farmers wanted a $2.5 billion settlement, but agreed to $1.25 billion -- $100 million from the 2008 farm bill plus the $1.15 billion appropriation -- because they are getting older and want the case to end, he added. "If they get their money, they would have a few years to enjoy," Boyd said.

The White House signaled Wednesday it wants the matter concluded. "President Obama is committed to ensuring that the black farmers' settlement is finalized and that the farmers and their descendants get the relief they deserve," a White House official told CongressDaily. "This is an issue he worked on as a member of the Senate, and he is determined to see it through to its rightful conclusion. With this in mind, we are working diligently with members of Congress to find the best vehicle as we develop a final package."

Earlier Wednesday, at a news conference, Conyers and Boyd complained that, while Vilsack has said that Congress should pass the appropriation on an emergency basis, the White House has not formally submitted an emergency declaration to the House.

During the news conference, Conyers had an aide call Vilsack to set up a meeting and invited reporters to go along to USDA. But Vilsack decided instead to go to Capitol Hill.

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., also spoke at the press conference and said the farmers should get their money because "they've been waiting too long." Hagen said that Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, had tried to attach a provision to provide the money to the tax extenders bill, but it had been ruled out of order.

The black farmers have charged that USDA discriminated against them in farm and housing loans.

Dan Glickman, Agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration, settled the initial class action suit known as Pigford I. But some farmers did not file their papers by the deadline for filing claims, and the 2008 farm bill allowed them to refile their cases under what has become known as Pigford II.

The settlements for the Pigford I case came out of the Justice Department judgment fund, but Vilsack has noted that the 2008 farm bill said the judgment fund could not be used to settle the Pigford II cases and that an appropriation was necessary.

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