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Citrus farmers to lose out as Bush threatens bill veto

FRESNO, Calif. — A bill promising $40 million in federal aid for a citrus industry recovering from this winter's deep freeze is likely to collapse because it's attached to an Iraq supplemental funding bill that the president is expected to veto.

The Senate Appropriations Committee last week approved money for citrus growers who reported $800 million in losses as a result of several days of subfreezing temperatures in January.

But President Bush on Friday threatened again to veto the bill since it is part of a $122 billion bill that also would set a nonbinding goal to remove combat troops from Iraq by March 31, 2008.

Citrus farmers and politicians said they still hope for the $40 million in federal disaster aid.

"None of that surprises me," said Tulare County farmer David Roberts, who saw about a third of his orange, lemon and grapefruit crop destroyed in the state's worst freeze in a decade.

"Unfortunately, the political end of getting help is so complicated that it's hard for us to get money quickly," he said. "Then, not only are we hurt, but we have to lay off workers."

Shirley Batchman, a spokeswoman for the trade organization, California Citrus Mutual, said growers may still be tallying damage.

The disaster assistance section of the Senate bill asks for $100 million to go to farmworkers and small businesses in affected regions, and for $95 million to help dairy farmers whose milk production dipped during a 2006 heat wave.

"This money is critical for workers and growers in the Central Valley," said Scott Gerber, a spokesman for Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "I think it's premature to say that it's doomed because there's still a long process it has to go through."

The Senate bill has to be approved by the Senate before it goes to the president, he said.

A similar bill passed the House Appropriations Committee earlier this month. The two differ in the amounts of money earmarked for California. The House bill also includes $25 million for spinach growers who suffered losses from an E.coli scare last fall.

Farmworker advocates were less hopeful about getting federal aid soon. About 28,000 field workers and plant packers were left jobless after the freeze, according to the United Farm Workers Union.

"I hope that they realize that farmworkers are the work soldiers that have sustained one of the largest economies in the state," said Roberto Perez, freeze relief director for the United Farm Workers Foundation. "I hope the president can see this bill not only as helping human beings in a time of need but as an investment."