In an unusual Friday afternoon move, the Senate unanimously passed two long-delayed, multi-billion dollar federal settlements, the Pigford II black-farmer discrimination case and the Cobell Native American case.
The $1.15 billion black farmers’ settlement funds an agreement reached between the Agriculture Department and minority farmers in 1999. The Cobell settlement—reached in 1999 by the Justice Department—resolves a decades-old suit in which plaintiffs charged the Interior Department with mishandling of a trust fund managed for Native Americans totaling $3.4 billion.
In the House, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said today that he will bring the measure to the House floor for a vote soon.
“I am pleased that the Senate passed legislation today that would provide funding for settlement of both the Pigford and Cobell class action lawsuits—an important step toward finally correcting these blights on our nation’s history,” he said.
Both settlements needed Congressional approval of appropriations outside a Justice Department fund intended for large federal settlements. Republicans blocked repeated Democratic efforts to win Senate approval of the settlements this year through unanimous consent proposals and other means, such as attaching them to a supplemental war-funding bill from which the settlements and other domestic funds were eventually stripped.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., dropped his objection to the Cobell settlement earlier this fall. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., agreed to the combined settlement package this week, after Senate leaders agreed to offset the spending.
The offsets, however, could prove controversial with poverty advocates. One offset uses surplus money from a nutrition program for women, infants, and children. That pay/for is similar to one this summer that used food-stamp funds to offset a bill providing emergency aide to avoid teacher layoffs, which angered program backers.
The settlement bill also balances costs with a provision to cut overpayments of federal unemployment insurance benefits by allowing the Treasury Department to offset tax refunds by the amount of overpaid benefits, cutting spending by $2.7 billion. The bill also extends customs user fees, offsetting another $2.1 billion of the bill’s cost.
Senate aides said approval of the unanimous consent agreement to pass the bill, which was initially expected this morning, was delayed because senators had to wait for a plane carrying Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl to land in his home state of Arizona, so they could make sure he did not object.
Billy House contributed to this report