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Senate panel passes USDA disaster, famine aid funds

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - About $266 million was earmarked for U.S. agricultural disaster relief in a funding bill approved by a Senate committee on Wednesday and the major U.S. food aid program got a small increase too.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the bill to fund the Agriculture Department and related agencies on a voice vote. The bill, which now goes to the Senate floor, applies to the fiscal year beginning Oct 1.

Appropriations chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said the committee approved a total of $5.5 billion in three disaster relief bills. Two of the bills did not relate to agriculture. The figure was based on federal estimates of damages and could be adjusted before the bills become law, he said.

Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin), chairman of the agriculture subcommittee, said his bill has $266 million "to respond to floods, storms and other natural disasters."

Hurricane Irene caused severe flooding in rural New England last month while a months-long drought has withered crops in the southern Plains.

The Agriculture Department would receive $139 million for the Emergency Watershed Protection Program, $78 million for the Emergency Conservation Program and $49 million for the Emergency Forest Restoration Program, a Kohl aide said.

The three programs share up to 75 percent of the cost of clearing flood debris, repairing public infrastructure, and rebuilding fences and repairing damage to land and trees on private property.

Under the agriculture bill about $1.562 billion would be appropriated to the Food for Peace program, the major U.S. hunger relief program. That is up $62 million from this year. Kohl said the increase reflects increased demand for food aid, "especially with the unprecedented famine in the Horn of Africa."

The House voted in June to cut Food for Peace to $1 billion in fiscal 2012, down from $1.5 billion this year.

A program that provides school meals for the world's poorest children would get $188 million in fiscal 2012 under the Senate committee's agricultural relief bill, compared to $199 million this year.

(Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)