WASHINGTON Black farmers are worried that a landmark deal to compensate them for discrimination faced over decades could slip through their fingers as a deadline looms without funding approved by lawmakers.
Last month, the Obama administration announced a $1.25 billion settlement with black farmers left out of loan and assistance programs administered by the U.S. Agriculture Department due to racism, one of the largest civil rights settlements in U.S. history.
But the deal was contingent on Congressional approval by March 31. Lawmakers leave on Friday for a two-week break, and there is no clear sign the funds will be approved by then.
"These farmers are old, and they don't have all this time to wait," said John Boyd Jr., head of the National Black Farmers Association, who urged Congress and the administration to hold up their end of the deal.
Boyd wants the administration to declare the settlement an emergency, which would waive Congress from the so-called "pay-go" requirement to trim budgets for other programs to fund the package.
Midway through remarks at a news conference held to publicize the funding hitch, Representative John Conyers -- chairman of the House Judiciary Committee -- made a phone call to secure a last-ditch meeting with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at 5:30 p.m. EDT (2130 GMT) to push him to issue the emergency order.
"As long as pay-go is waived, we don't have any problem," Conyers said, adding that he was confident Congress could approve the funding by Friday, when the spring recess begins, if Vilsack does his part.
Missing the deadline "would mean missing another planting season, more black farmers going out of business, more black farmers dying waiting for justice," said Boyd.
The settlement, known as Pigford II, was reached with the Justice Department and USDA on February 18. About $100 million had already been approved.
"We want these people to get in gear and to get this done with the same type of fire and determination that they did to do healthcare," Boyd said. "It is not OK for them to tell us to wait any longer."
The original Pigford class-action lawsuit, named after North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford, was filed against the USDA in 1997 after decades of the department not responding to black farmers' claims of discrimination.
It was settled two years later with more than 13,000 farmers receiving monetary awards and debt relief worth more than $1 billion.
But tens of thousands of farmers missed the filing deadline so their claims were denied. The new settlement would allow these farmers to again make their claims.
(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)