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Farm bill logjam breaks up, but no bill yet

You can add a new definition to your dictionary description of the word, exasperation: Collin Peterson, a Democratic Congressman from Minnesota.

After weeks of working with the White House, the Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and his ranking Republican colleague, Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia have put together a "framework" of a farm bill that just might meet President Bush's objections that previous bills were tied to tax increases.

So far, it seems to be drawing strong opposition from farm groups, the Senate, and maybe even the White House, which hasn't exactly endorsed it.

"We have put together a framework to show that it can be done," Peterson told reporters Wednesday. "Does it make everybody happy? No. Is it the final deal? No."

The draft of a farm bill that might satisfy the White House would be about $6 billion more over 10 years than the budget baseline (the estimated cost of extending the current law). Peterson said the cost of the farm bill that the House passed last summer would have been about $14 billion over the baseline. The Senate bill added even more, including a new permanent disaster program estimated to cost about $5 billion over the life of that five-year bill.

The bottom line: Peterson's approach trims increases that had been expected for nutrition programs, conservation, commodities and fruits and vegetables.

But he emphasized several times to reporters that the framework is just an example of what can be done. The House, Senate and White House still have to agree on how much money can be spent before the details of a final law can be written, he said.

"Unless we get a number, the rest of this is a bunch of foolishness and I'd be wasting my time," said Peterson, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative.

Goodlatte agreed.

"It is useless in my opinion at this point to debate the merits of this proposal when we do not have an agreement with the Senate on how much can be spent," Goodlatte said.

Peterson confirmed reports that loan rates and target prices for commodities won't be increased from the levels of the 2002 farm bill.

"Basically, what this is what you asked for," he said, referring to early backing from some farm organizations for an extension of the 2002 commodity title.

Still, the proposal has disappointed commodity and farm groups already.

National Corn Growers Association president, Ron Litterer of Greene, Iowa, told Agriculture Online Thursday that the new framework proposal for a countercyclical revenue option was less than his group had hoped for.

"We're really very disappointed that it's going to be based on fixed prices and not take a market-based approach," Litterer said. The proposal would also be based on national yields and prices, not state level yields and prices, which was part of the Senate farm bill.

National Farmers Union was also disappointed, said the group's president, Tom Buis.

"This proposal's lack of a permanent disaster program ignores the single biggest hole in the safety net," Buis said in a statement released Thursday. "This must be restored. NFU strongly supports the efforts of Senators Max Baucus and Kent Conrad to ensure that a permanent disaster program is in place and adequately funded."

Senator John Thune (R-SD) said that proposal's lack of permanent disaster program might be the biggest objection members of the Senate Ag Committee have to the proposal put out by Peterson and Goodlatte.

"Right now, I guess what I would say is that it's getting a very lukewarm reception in the Senate," Thune said of the House proposal.

He told Agriculture Online that senators also dislike the fact that the maximum acreage for the Conservation Reserve Program was cut to 32 million acres (down from 39 million acres under current law and both farm bills passed by the House and Senate).

He said senators also dislike a proposal to eliminate direct payments in the 9th year of what would be a 10-year farm bill under the House framework. That, too, drew skepticism from Thune, who said it's difficult enough to write farm bills that will be effective for five years.

Thune said that a group of Republican ag committee members met with Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer and other top USDA officials Thursday to discuss the House proposal. Thune said he was pleased that at this point it appears that President Bush wants to sign a farm bill if differences over spending "can be worked out."

Bush still has the power of the veto pen at his disposal. But House Ag Committee Chairman Peterson has significant power as well. He said Thursday that he had met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had agreed that if a new farm law isn’t passed by March 15, to allow permanent farm law to kick in. That law, based on 1938 and 1949 farm bills, has much higher loan rates but does not include such modern programs as loan deficiency payments.

"In my judgment, if you let people off the hook with an extension (of the 2002 farm bill), then things will drag on and on," Peterson said. "I would guess that if we have permanent law for two or three weeks, we'll get a farm bill."

You can add a new definition to your dictionary description of the word, exasperation: Collin Peterson, a Democratic Congressman from Minnesota.

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