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Farm bill still faces tough negotiations

There's broad support and a strong concensus in Washington -- for a one-month extension of the current farm law.

President George W. Bush said Thursday that he will sign a farm bill extension to April 18 that was passed Wednesday by the Senate and the House. Bush said he'll do that "to avoid serious disruptions that might result if the current law is allowed to expire without a responsible farm bill enacted in its place. Farmers and ranchers deserve to know the structure of policies that affect their day-to-day business activities, and right now they face uncertainty."

But at the same time, Bush said Congress should extend the current law for at least a full year if it can't agree on a new farm bill by April 18.

"While long-term extension of current law is not the desired outcome, I believe the government has a responsibility to provide America's farmers and ranchers with a timely and predictable farm program -- not multiple short-term extensions of current law. Without a predictable policy, agriculture producers will be unable to make sound business decisions with respect to this year's crop," Bush said.

For his part, the Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman, Tom Harkin (D-IA) told reporters that "the extension is really a sign of progress," and that he wouldn't have supported an extension if he didn't think an agreement on the farm bill could be reached in a few weeks. Harkin said that he and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (R-MN) have been meeting all week, along with the ranking Republicans on both committees, Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia.

They've been working on how spending would be allocated for conservation and other priorities if the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee find ways to add $10 billion to the budget baseline for the new bill.

However, Harkin conceded that a lot of obstacles remain. Including:

  • Still no agreement on exactly how Congress will come up with $10 billion in new spending over 10 years that's also acceptable to the White House. And the Senate Finance Committee wants to control how tax breaks it would offer for agriculture, such as credits for conservation, would be run and that's not acceptable to members of the House and Senate Ag committees, nor the House Ways and Means Committee, Harkin said.

    He also said that giving more control of agricultural legislation to those committees has the potential to open up ag policy to less sympathetic urban interests in Congress in the future, even though the Senate Finance Committee is currently headed by leaders from rural states, Chairman Max Baucus of Montana and the Ranking Republican, Chuck Grassley, from Iowa.

    "I think that's a dangerous, dangerous slope for those of us who are concerned about agriculture and rural America," Harkin said.

No agreement yet on how that extra $10 billion, if it's approved, would be divided up, either. Harkin said the four ag committee leaders so far have agreed on about $1 billion, "then we got stuck."

He confirmed that Chairman Peterson had suggested passing a baseline bill, one that would include new programs not in the 2002 law but would not have the levels of spending anticipated when the House and Senate passed their versions of a farm bill last year.

Harkin isn't enthusiastic about that approach.

"I just think a baseline bill would be very hard to pass," he said. It might not have enough increased spending on nutrition programs that would be needed to get votes from urban members of Congress, for example.

The difference between a baseline bill and just extending the current law, is that, in theory, Congress could pass a farm bill with money for new programs for biofuels or conservation. But it wouldn't have much additional money, so other existing programs might have to be cut in order to make changes.

Complacency. Harkin said that Finance Committee Chairman Baucus had suggested another extension to May, in order to finish negotiations. With the current extension, some members of Congress may feel less pressure to work quickly on finishing up. "That's my big concern," he said.

Remaining uncertainty over White House goals for reform in the farm bill. Although press reports have said the Administration might accept an adjusted gross income limit for farm program payments at $500,000, instead of the $200,000 it proposed more than year ago, Harkin said Thursday that he still hasn't heard anything from the White House on that issue.

When asked about South Dakota Senator John Thune's suggestion that Congress should try to pass a veto-proof farm bill just in case it can't reach complete agreement with the White House, Harkin said, "I like what John just said. I would love to do that."

But, Harkin added, Thune will need to convince his fellow Republicans in the House leadership first.

"They will not approve a bill that would be vetoed by the President," Harkin said.

There's broad support and a strong concensus in Washington -- for a one-month extension of the current farm law.

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