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Grassley delays push for payment cap

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) decided late Thursday against pushing for an amendment to the Senate budget resolution that would have capped farm program payments at some $250,000 per individual.

"Throughout this debate I have been hearing concerns from senators who were considering voting against my payment limits amendment simply because it was on a non-binding budget resolution," Grassley said in a statement released Thursday evening. "I don't want my colleagues to have any excuses to vote against good policy, so Senator Dorgan and I asked for the amendment to be pulled from consideration. Placing a hard cap on farm payments and getting rid of the loopholes that are being used to help big farms get even bigger remains a top priority for me as we begin debate on the farm bill and I'm confident we’ll have the votes to get it done."

Later, Grassley's spokeswoman Beth Pellett said that the senators thought they had enough votes to get the amendment passed, but that they didn't want opponents to use the budget issue as an excuse to vote against it later during the farm bill debate.

Earlier this week Grassley's proposed amendment drew criticism from Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ag Committee.

"Any changes to current law will only accomplish taking away the certainty that agriculture producers and their bankers have been accustomed to over the life of the 2002 farm bill," Chambliss said. "Senator Grassley's amendment is not simply a budget-saving measure, but a complex issue that deserves thorough discussion when all of our farm policies are reviewed later on this year, not during the budget debate. The Grassley amendment clearly fails to recognize differences in commodities, regions, as well as agribusiness infrastructure."

Grassley has faced opposition from southern senators in both parties in previous efforts to get commodity program payments capped. The argument against capping payments in the budget resolution, Pellet said, is "actually very similar to the objection last time when Senator Chambliss made the argument that payment limits...belong on the farm bill."

Although Chambliss argues that the debate should be in the farm bill process, he and other Senators who represent cotton and rice growing regions have opposed payment limits in the past.

Privately, one ag lobbyist in Washington said that the real pressure on Grassley seemed to come from the Democratic leadership in the Senate, which may have been responding to opposition to payment limits from southern Democrats, including Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.

Chris Thorne, spokesman for Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND), said that he wasn't certain if Conrad specifically asked Grassley and Dorgan to withdraw the amendment. But Conrad is trying to get the budget resolution passed today, so he has been asking Senators not to add amendments that don't directly relate to the budget.

"He has made repeated entreaties to his colleagues, asking, 'If you have an amendment, look for another place,'" Thorne told Agriculture Online Friday.

"The budget resolution does not dictate exactly how the money is spent," Thorne explained. That's left to authorizing committees like the Agriculture Committee when it writes the Farm Bill."

Thorne said Conrad, who is also a member of the Agriculture Committee, isn't necessarily against the idea of payment limits.

"This is not a judgement on the value of the amendment," he said. "I don't think the senator would oppose the amendment but he thinks there's a better place."

Earlier this week, Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who this year took over from Chambliss as head of the Agriculture Committee, said that he continues to support Grassley's goal of a firm cap on commodity program payments. Harkin hasn't said whether or not he'll include the cap in his version of a farm bill when he offers it to the committee for a vote.

Pellett said that Grassley believes he still has the votes in the Senate to get payment limits added to the farm bill at some point.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) decided late Thursday against pushing for an amendment to the Senate budget resolution that would have capped farm program payments at some $250,000 per individual.

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