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Settlement funds for black farmers delayed

Despite Sherrod furor, the Senate stripped $1.2 billion for the claims from an emergency spending bill.

WASHINGTON - Black farmers, due $1.2 billion for a legacy of discrimination by the Agriculture Department, suffered a new and disheartening setback this week, despite the national spotlight provided by the quickly disavowed firing of a black department worker.

The Senate refused again to pay the bill.

Opponents say it's a question of where the money would come from, and that is a major issue with an election nearing and voters up in arms about federal spending.

Late Thursday, the Senate stripped $1.2 billion for the claims from an emergency spending bill, along with $3.4 billion in long-overdue funding for a settlement with American Indians who say they were swindled out of royalties by the federal government.

Even the attention the Shirley Sherrod case brought to discrimination at the USDA could not bring lawmakers together on a deal. Instead, Republicans and Democrats alike proclaimed their support for the funding - appeasing important constituencies - while blaming the other side for not getting anything done.

The result: Thousands of black farmers and Indian landowners will keep waiting for checks that most lawmakers agree should have been written years ago.

"If you say you support us, then, damn it, do it!" said John Boyd, a Virginia farmer and lead organizer for the black farmers' lawsuits.

Sherrod's resignation under pressure from the USDA over her comments involving race, and subsequent White House apology, brought fresh attention to the black farmers' claims. In explaining why he acted so hastily in asking her to resign, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he and the department were keenly sensitive to the issue of discrimination and race given the USDA's dismal track record on civil rights.

For decades, minority farmers have complained of being shut out by local Agriculture offices, well after the days of blatant segregation. African Americans, for example, complained that loan committees across the rural South were dominated by white "good ol' boys" networks that gave the vast majority of loans and disaster aid to whites while offering scraps to blacks.

Sherrod herself was a claimant in a case against the USDA, as part of a cooperative that won a $13 million settlement just last year.

The department also has faced persistent complaints of racism and discrimination in its hiring, and government audits going back two decades have found that complaints often sit for years without attention.

Vilsack and President Obama have acted far more aggressively than the Bush administration to resolve minority settlements. The blockade has come in Congress.

Leaders in both parties say they support the funding, but things break down when they try to hash out how to pay.

The money for both the black farmers and the Indian landowners was stripped from the Senate war-funding bill Thursday after the House passed it earlier this month. Senate Republicans objected to various other Democratic priorities as well, insisting they be paid for rather than adding to the federal deficit.

Democrats have offered proposals, including one package with tax increases on oil companies and multinational companies. Republicans have objected, calling instead for spending cuts elsewhere.