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Black farmers eye next move in bias lawsuit

By Jasmin Melvin

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Black farmers engaged in a discrimination suit against the U.S. government will give Congress more time to approve funds to compensate them for years of mistreatment but they have not set any hard deadlines, an advocate for the group said on Thursday.

If the process drags on too long, the farmers could decide to take the case to court or go back to the negotiating table to hash out a new settlement as they originally sought $2.5 billion.

"We will remain engaged in the process as long as we see progress on the Hill," John Boyd Jr., head of the National Black Farmers Association, told reporters.

Congress missed a March 31 deadline to appropriate $1.15 billion in funds to uphold one of the largest civil rights settlements in history.

The deal reached in the case known as Pigford II would compensate black farmers left out of federal farm loan and assistance programs for decades due to racism.

Even though heralded by the Obama administration as a milestone in correcting past wrongs, the settlement announced in February remains on shaky grounds with no money to complete the deal.

"Black farmers have the option of walking away from the settlement at any time during the next 60 days if the $1.15 billion is not appropriated by Congress," Boyd said.

The smaller settlement was accepted on the premise that the government would move quickly to begin compensating the farmers, many of whom are elderly with an urgent need for the money, Boyd said.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last week he hopes to get the settlement resolved as soon as Congress returns as his department is making an aggressive effort "to put this chapter behind us."

The administration, Vilsack said in a statement on Wednesday, "is committed to working with Congress to find an appropriate vehicle to provide funding."

But Boyd said Vilsack's remarks lack important details about how USDA plans to act on their commitment.

"Will it be spelled out in the form of an emergency designation, which in my opinion would make things go a lot smoother on Capitol Hill, or has he identified offsets?" he said.

With no clear direction from the administration, Boyd is pressing for a meeting with President Barack Obama.

The original Pigford class action lawsuit, named after North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford, was settled in 1999.

The first case awarded more than $1 billion in payments and debt relief to black farmers, but tens of thousands of farmers missed the filing deadline. The settlement in Pigford II would allow these farmers to again make their claims.

(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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