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US: Citrus aid ruled out as Senate approves $36.5 billion disaster relief package

Thousands of Florida citrus farmers are crossing their fingers, hoping Congress will come through next month on promised aid for their decimated industry after the Senate opted not to include agriculture assistance as part of a disaster relief package that passed Tuesday.

Most growers can probably weather a few more weeks without federal help to cover their losses, industry group representatives said if the commitments for further help made by White House officials and congressional leaders hold true.

“We’re frustrated that it’s not in this relief package because we really need it. This was a catastrophic event for our industry and we need a little help to get back on our feet,” said Andrew Meadows, spokesman for the Florida Citrus Mutual, a trade group. “Time is of the essence.”

The Senate approved the $36.5 billion disaster relief package by a vote of 82-17. Senate leaders have promised to push for more federal aid as soon as next month to help communities still reeling from devastating hurricanes and wildfires.

It’s the second round of funding to help states and U.S. territories recover in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and from devastating wildfires out West. Lawmakers approved a $15.25 billion hurricane relief package in September.

Hurricane Irma pummeled the Sunshine State in September, flooding groves and uprooting trees, many of them only weeks from harvest. An estimated 421,176 acres of citrus production were affected by hurricane or tropical storm force winds in a state that provides 60 percent of the nation's orange juice supply.

Both of Florida's senators — Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio — were supporting a Nelson proposal to add $3 billion to cover losses Hurricane Irma inflicted on the state's agriculture industry last month. Nearly $761 million of that request would be direct aid for the state's citrus industry.

Rubio and Nelson both voted for Tuesday's aid package.

Nelson said he voted for the legislation despite its exclusion of citrus aid because some of the billions in disaster aid will benefit his Florida constituents. But he said he expected nothing less than full aid for Florida's devastated agriculture industry.

"There should be absolutely no ambiguity that the federal government intends to provide all the necessary assistance to make our people whole," he said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

Nelson said he placed a hold on Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget as leverage.

If Washington doesn't extend a lifeline, many small and mid-size groves could be squeezed out of the business, said Ron Mahan with the Citrus Growers Association, a trade group that represents Southwest Florida growers.

Mahan is optimistic Congress will deliver on its promise to Florida even with all the disaster-generated needs from the California wildfires to the Puerto Rico hurricanes.

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