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A race to the farm bill finish line?

House and Senate members of the farm bill conference committee quickly approved all or most of three titles in the new law Tuesday, those covering credit, trade and research.

But real progress, if any, was taking place behind closed doors as leaders of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees tried to reach an agreement on how to pay for the next farm bill.

And, in public, several prominent Republicans on the conference committee hinted that they were more interested in writing a law that both parties in Congress can support than in trying to meet all of the demands of the Bush Administration.

It was even clearer Tuesday that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) have a tough job before them.

The House wants to increase farm bill spending by between $5.5 billion and $6 billion over the next ten years while the Senate's package calls for $10 billion in increased spending and $2.5 billion in ag-related tax cuts.

Rangel told the conference committee that he had offered to meet with Baucus to try to resolve those differences.

Baucus agreed to the need to act quickly.

"Chairman Rangel and I are going to have a little sit-down. We're going to talk about this," Baucus announced. "We will do our level best to try to find a solution, hopefully today."

If they reach an agreement, the House will have to vote for another one-month extension of the farm bill on Wednesday, Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson said. The House won't be in session on Friday, the day the latest extension of the farm bill expires. Peterson said he opposes a long-term extension of the current farm bill.

Sources for new money for the farm bill from the House and Senate are still far apart and facing powerful opposition.

In the House, both Democrats and Republicans support a change in tax laws that would require banks to report credit card and debit card transactions to retailers. The idea was part of the Bush Administration's own budget for 2009, said Matthew Beck, a spokesman for the Ways and Means Committee. And better reporting of that taxable income of merchants would bring in more than $13 billion in uncollected taxes to the federal government over the next decade, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson told reporters last Friday. The reporting requirements would be phased in and the Ag Committee planned to use only $5.5 billion of that, Peterson said.

But on Monday, Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner told reporters in Washington that President Bush would veto a farm bill with that source of revenue.

In a telephone press conference Tuesday, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, reported resistance to the idea from lenders.

"We were having the small banks in rural America fighting the credit card thing," Grassley said.

The Senate's own sources of money, which include customs fees, may already be spoken for by other committees in the House. The Senate Finance Committee has also proposed ending the ability of physicians to send patients to their own private specialty hospitals. That would save more than $2 billion in Medicare costs.

But one member of the conference committee, Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, said that changes in specialty hospital laws should be used to improve mental health care.

"If there is an issue in this country that's totally neglected, it's mental health," said De Lauro, who chairs the Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee in the House.

And, with rising food costs, "One would think we would take some of this money and apply it to nutrition," she said.

House members of the farm bill conference committee were also critical of some of the $2.5 billion in tax cuts proposed by the Finance Committee.

Peterson said that Finance Committee's proposal for more favorable tax treatment of thoroughbred race horses would benefit Arab sheiks who've invested in the industry.

"These are not only rich people. They're rich people that don't live in the United States," Peterson said.

To that, Grassley fired back, "Tell that to the Amish. They have horses, too."

And Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln said that horse racing is an important industry in her home state of Arkansas.

She pleaded with the committee members "not to draw some arbitrary line in the sand that could bring the whole bill down." Her constituents don't understand the battles in Washington over who controls the sources of new funds for a farm bill, she said.

Representative Bob Goodlatte, the ranking Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, said he agreed with Lincoln that it's important to show constituents that Congress cares about agriculture, "But we also will be doing nothing for our constituents if we don't get a bill signed into law by the White House."

Goodlatte said it's unlikely the White House would agree to the level of new spending proposed by the Senate. And, he said, "They have insisted on reform and I think they're right to insist on reform."

Earlier in the meeting Goodlatte said that any farm bill agreement has to have bipartisan support so that "either we're going to have a president's signature or we'll have a bill otherwise."

Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) agreed on that point. He noted that the Senate’s farm bill passed with 79 bipartisan votes.

"It seems to me we ought to do our work here and worry about a presidential veto later," Roberts said. "When we get a bill together, that is the time to go to the White House."

Peterson agreed with Goodlatte that the $12.5 billion in new spending and tax cuts proposed by the Senate would not be supported by the White House and urged his colleagues to try for a more realistic farm bill.

"I'm not interested in a veto so that somebody can declare a political victory," Peterson said. He warned against overplaying a hand during the negotiations.

"We've got a slogan out in farm country that pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered," Peterson said.

House and Senate members of the farm bill conference committee quickly approved all or most of three titles in the new law Tuesday, those covering credit, trade and research.

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