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Farm bill nearly finished

After some six hours of at times emotional debate, members of the House and Senate farm bill conference committee approved all of the major titles of the developing law early Friday morning in Washington.

They made few changes in a bill hammered out by key leaders behind closed doors. They rejected an amendment by Senator Chuck Grassley to ban packer ownership of livestock and an effort by the committee's Kansas members, Senator Pat Roberts and Representative Jerry Moran, to restore $313 million to the direct payment program. The $313 million amounts to about a two-percent cut in direct payments that most farmers with a commodity base will receive.

No changes were made to an income test for receiving farm program payments that was negotiated among members this week but final approval of that measure will come next week, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) said, after the Congressional Budget Office has said how they will affect the bill's estimated cost.

White House support for the new commodity program limits based on adjusted gross income remains in doubt.

Just as the conference committee members started debating the commodity title around 11:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner released a statement calling for reform in program payments.

"The president wants to sign a farm bill that meets his criteria," Conner said. "If sent to him without meeting his criteria, he would be forced to veto the bill. "We encourage the conferees to produce a bill which will gain his signature by reducing the cost and implementing real reform."

USDA's original farm bill proposal released in early 2007 called for ending payments to anyone with adjusted gross income above $200,000. During recent negotiations with Congress the White House has agreed to a $500,000 AGI limit, if other conditions for the farm bill are met.

Farm bill leaders this week agreed to lower the cap to $500,000 for nonfarmers by 2011, but it would be phased in starting at $750,000 in 2009. Few farmers would be affected by another limit that starts when an individual makes more than $100,000 over an AGI limit of $950,000. At that point, he or she would lose 10% of direct payments.

The conference committee won't meet again until next Tuesday, when it's expected to finish voting on a farm bill that still has to go back to the House and Senate for final votes before being sent to the White House for signing or a veto.

After some six hours of at times emotional debate, members of the House and Senate farm bill conference committee approved all of the major titles of the developing law early Friday morning in Washington.

Here are the major highlights of the new farm bill, as described by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA):

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