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Chairman: Farm bill progressing but doesn't oppose one-month extension

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) told reporters Thursday that agriculture committee leaders in Congress are making progress on working out a final farm bill, but he didn't rule out extending the current law another month after it expires on March 15.

"We are in fact moving forward without a whole lot of fanfare," Harkin said.

For one thing, leaders of the House and Senate committees have agreed on how much to spend on a farm bill.

"Support is coalescing around a figure of $10 billion over baseline" budget projections, Harkin said. The White House has also indicated support for that number, although Harkin said he wished the administration would be more willing to compromise during the process.

Harkin was planning to meet this afternoon with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) and the ranking Republicans on both ag committees, Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Bob Goodlatte of Virginia. He said the four would begin discussing how the money for the next farm bill will be divided up among titles in the bill, such as commodities, energy, conservation and nutrition.

When asked about whether he supported extending the current farm bill until April 15, he said, "That's a possibility," but that he'd be more likely to support it if the committee leadership can at least agree on how the money would be divided up among commodity titles.

When asked if that meant cutting programs below the Senate's version of a farm bill, Harkin said he didn't think it meant big changes.

Harkin said the Senate bill originally proposed spending about $18 billion more than the baseline over the next ten years, but that in addition to the $10 billion in new revenue he hopes to see from the Senate Finance Committee for a farm bill, that his staff has also found about "$5 billion in internal scrubbing and $3 billion in timing shifts."

Harkin's press aide, Kate Cyrul, told Agriculture Online that the timing shifts could include delaying direct payments from being made before a crop is grown until afterwards. "That saves about $1 billion," she said.

Internal scrubbing involves looking at all programs under the ag committee's jurisdiction and "taking a look at programs to make sure they're running efficiently," she said, without naming any that might face budget cuts or changes.

In his press conference, Harkin did say that he will support giving farmers a choice of signing up for an average crop revenue program instead of today's countercyclical programs, which will also be included in the bill.

And he said that he believes the recent purchases of American beef packing companies by the Brazilian company, JBS, SA, will create support for a ban on packer ownership of livestock in the farm bill.

Although progress is being made, significant disagreements remain over funding for the farm bill. The White House has rejected House and Senate bills that rely on what it calls tax increases.

Late last week the White House released a list of possible sources of funding that it would support.

Earlier this week, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee said that only some of the White House ideas fall within its jurisdiction. An aide to Grassley said later that three that might be acceptable to the committee include extending a pilot program that looked for fraud and waste to cover Medicaid. That could save $4.3 billion over l0 years. A similar proposal to look for fraud in unemployment overpayments might save another $3.6 billion.

Such savings still would not be enough and the committee is looking at other possible sources to pay for the farm bill spending over the baseline, including the use of existing tariffs.

Grassley said the administration also wants more reform in farm program payment restrictions if it's going to agree to more than $6 billion over the baseline.

On Thursday, Harkin said he also supports more reform but he doesn't know how much support that will have from other members of the committee and that he had not heard directly from the administration on that issue in the last few days.

"I wish the administration would work with us rather than saying it's my way or the highway," he said.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) told reporters Thursday that agriculture committee leaders in Congress are making progress on working out a final farm bill, but he didn't rule out extending the current law another month after it expires on March 15.

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