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Black farmers' settlement is at the mercy of the Senate

By Ed Hornick, CNN
John Boyd Jr. is the president of the National Black Farmers Association.
John Boyd Jr. is the president of the National Black Farmers Association.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The case against the USDA was settled out of court 11 years ago
  • Qualified farmers could receive $50,000 each to settle claims of racial bias
  • The House approved a war supplemental bill that included money to pay for the settlement
  • House speaker blasts Senate Republicans for stalling the process

Washington (CNN) -- Money to pay for a discrimination lawsuit brought against the Department of Agriculture by black farmers remains stuck in a legislative body described as a place where bills go to die.

In July, the House approved a war supplemental bill that included money to pay for the settlement. It now remains stuck as senators examine the bill.

The 1997 Pigford v. Glickman case against the U.S. Agriculture Department was settled out of court 11 years ago. Under a federal judge's terms dating to 1999, qualified farmers could receive $50,000 each to settle claims of racial bias.

As a senator, Barack Obama sponsored "Pigford II," a measure in the 2008 Farm Bill that reopened the case. In February of this year, his administration brokered a $1.25 billion settlement for Pigford II. But Congress missed two deadlines, one in March and the other in May.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday blasted Senate Republicans for holding up the process, saying that they have "rejected over and over again any legislation that has had the Pigford settlement in it."

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House Minority Leader John Boehner, asked about Republican support for the black farmer settlement money, said "many of us are supportive of settling these claims."

"This issue has gone on for almost the 20 years that I've been here, and it needs to be resolved," he added.

The money, along with all the other added domestic spending that the House added to the war funding bill, is likely to be stripped out next week when the Senate is expected to approve money for Iraq and Afghanistan and other emergency spending items.

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-North Carolina, said in a statement Thursday that the federal government has failed to live up to its obligations to black farmers, including more than 4,000 North Carolinians.

"Sen. Chuck Grassley and I have been working together to right this wrong for our farmers," she said. "Since the settlement was agreed to in February, I have been focused on ensuring Congress appropriates the funding. I will continue working with my colleagues to secure the funding in the first piece of legislation that is headed to the president's desk."

Pelosi, meanwhile, said the push to get Senate action has had "no higher priority because of the events of recent days."

She was referring to the firestorm over Shirley Sherrod, an African-American, who stepped down from her USDA job Monday under pressure after a video clip surfaced of her discussing a white farmer. The White House and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized to her Wednesday.

Read more about Sherrod's story

Pelosi's sentiments were echoed by John Boyd, a fourth-generation farmer and founder of the National Black Farmers Association.

"We are still stuck in Senate politics, and it looks like it's very bipartisan politics with the Democrats on one side of the fence trying to get something done, and the Republicans focusing on midterm elections," he told CNN.

Boyd urged President Obama to step in and move the bill forward.

"We just need the president to focus in on this thing just a little while longer and ask that the black farmers get a vote on this very, very important issue before the recess," he said. "I want to go on record making sure that everybody understands that we support the president 110 percent. We just feel that we need a little push in the Senate to help get this done."

Boyd added that Obama should reach out to Republicans and Democrats to make sure that the farmers receive justice before the August recess.

The president promised to help black farmers who have not received the $1.25 billion settlement owed to them after years of being denied government farm loans and support from federal programs because of the color of their skin.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, in a briefing Wednesday, said the USDA is paying out the settlement for "decades-long discrimination."

"I think as you saw in the statements from Secretary Vilsack that, rightly, the department has a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination," he said. "If you look back at the history of some aspects of the way USDA benefits have been dispensed, they were done so in a way that people have acknowledged were discriminatory."

Vilsack, after a Wednesday night meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus to discuss the Sherrod case, said he was working on getting the Senate to appropriate the money, and "our hope is it gets done quickly so we can resolve the case."

CNN's Shawna Shepherd and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.