For the second consecutive year Congress is coming to the rescue of farmers and ranchers hard hit by low prices and bad weather.

The Senate voted Wednesday 74 to 26 to approve a $70 billion agricultural appropriations bill that includes $8.7 billion in emergency aid for tens of thousands of struggling farmers. The bill passed the House earlier this month.

The bulk of the relief package -- $5.5 billion -- is earmarked for farmers stung by falling crop and livestock prices. Checks could begin arriving in their mailboxes within two weeks of President Clinton signing the bill into law. Another $1.2 billion is intended for farmers and ranchers who suffered losses due to hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters.

Bankers are urging the President to act quickly. "The deteriorating ability of farmers to repay operating loans and generate positive cash flows has been a growing concern among many farm lenders," said Robert Barsness, president of the Independent Community Bankers of America. --Alan Kline

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