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Ag Democrats fire back at Bush over farm bill

Democratic leaders on congressional agriculture committees fired back at Bush administration threats to veto the Senate version of a farm bill Thursday, while leaders in the Senate were still trying to find a compromise on the number of amendments that will be allowed when the bill is debated.

Despite the delays and the threats, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) said he expects voting on the farm bill to begin soon adding "and yes, we'll have a bill before Thanksgiving."

Harkin said he was mystified at the administration's opposition after months of communication with the USDA while working on the bill. He said he couldn't understand why the Administration threatened a veto before debate on the bill began. (Technically, Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner and other advisers are recommending a veto unless the administration's objections about cost and lack of reform are met).

Harkin said the administration "took issue with virtually every element of the bill," including an expanded program to provide free fruits and vegetables to school children in low-income neighborhoods and regions.

Harkin and other Democrats said Thursday that the criticism seemed to be a way for the administration to try to influence the farm bill.

"No Republicans are paying attention to them on what they want to do on the farm bill," Harkin said.

Later in the day, Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), said on the floor of the Senate that he hoped that leaders from both parties could find a compromise on how many amendments will be allowed during farm bill debate. Roberts said he didn't want to just extend the current farm bill because it hasn't worked very well for farmers in the Great Plains.

During the same discussion, Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) said the Bush administration "is seeking leverage. That's what this is really all about."

Conrad said that the Bush administration's own farm bill proposal put out last January actually costs more than the Senate bill. The independent nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Senate bill will cost $285.8 billion over the next five years. The Bush proposal would cost $287.2 billion, he said. And, he said, "they [the CBO] say we don't add a dime to the deficit."

The commodity programs in the farm bill also will cost one-fourth of one percent of federal spending. The Commodity Title of the 2002 farm law was projected to cost three-fourths of a percent of federal spending and actually cost one-half of a percent, Conrad said.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) issued an "opinion editorial" Thursday that said some of the problems reported in newspapers about nonfarmers getting commodity payments are not the fault of the current farm law, but poor enforcement of the law by the administration.

"In 1987, Congress passed the Farm Program Payments Integrity Act, specifically to prohibit farm program payments to individuals and entities that are not 'actively engaged in farming,'" Peterson said.

"The 2002 farm bill established a Commission on the Application of Payment Limitations for Agriculture. The Commission found that USDA failed to devote sufficient resources to the administration of payment limits and did a poor job of policing related fraud and abuse," Peterson said.

"In 2004, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report confirmed the Commission's finding and concluded that USDA failed to write regulations strict enough to prevent non-farmers from receiving payments. USDA responded to that report by arguing that the rules were sufficient. Now the Administration is blaming Congress for the loose regulations it created and defended," he added.

Democratic leaders on congressional agriculture committees fired back at Bush administration threats to veto the Senate version of a farm bill Thursday, while leaders in the Senate were still trying to find a compromise on the number of amendments that will be allowed when the bill is debated.

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