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Harkin hopeful Bush will sign farm bill

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) told reporters Thursday morning that he hopes President George W. Bush will sign the developing farm bill, which he said he expects to be able to send to the House and Senate for final votes next week.

In the event a bill isn't approved in Harkin's timeframe, the Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a measure to extend the current farm bill by two more weeks, to Friday, May 16.

Harkin said that Wednesday night he got reports back of a evening meeting between the President and Representative John Boehner, the Republican Minority Leader in the House and Representative Bob Goodlatte, the ranking Republican on the House Agriculture Committee.

"They sounded hopeful," Harkin said.

Harkin said there were a few issues remaining to be worked on, but he hoped they could be resolved before a public farm bill conference committee meeting this afternoon.

One of those issues involves food aid to poor countries.

"Evidently Laura Bush...wanted 20% of our PL [public law] 480 food aid, money for that to go for local purchases," Harkin said. "That's always been a sore point around here but we think we might be able to hammer that out."

He said that farm bill leaders might be willing to meet the Administration more than halfway on that issue, perhaps agreeing to using 15% of food aid money to buy food near where it's consumed instead of shipping it from the United States.

Another issue that remains unresolved, between the House and Senate more than the White House, is whether or not the livestock title of the farm bill should ban ownership of livestock by meat packing companies, except for about two weeks before slaughter.

"I think that's one of the things we could not resolve and we're going to have to vote in conference. The House opposes it. They always have," Harkin said.

Harkin supports it, saying that it's needed "to insure that the markets function correctly."

It would not prevent forward-contracting of livestock for sale to packers, Harkin said.

He said he'll also make the argument that if the Brazilian firm JBS is allowed to go forward with its purchase of American meat packing companies, which will increase packer concentration in this country, he will point out that the Brazilian company could own cattle here without the packer ban.

Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) said Wednesday that she also supports the packer ban but she isn't certain if support for the ban has grown on the House Agriculture Committee, which did not vote on that proposal during debate on the House version of a farm bill.

She said that the JBS entry into the U.S. marketplace might make arguments for a packer ban more salient.

Harkin said that farm bill payment reform didn't go as far as he would have liked but that it's an improvement. He said that the agreement has not changed since yesterday. It would phase in a ban on commodity payments to nonfarmers starting in 2009. Nonfarmers with adjusted gross income of $750,000 or more would not get payments. In 2010 the limit drops to $650,000 and in 2011 it hits $500,000. Farmers at all income levels would continue to be eligible for payments but for every $100,000 increase in adjusted gross income above $950,000, an individual farmer would see his or her direct payment cut by 10%.

Harkin said the nonfarm AGI limit wasn't set to start in 2008 because rental contracts had already been set for this year. When asked if landlords who might be affected by the AGI limit would change from share rental agreements to cash rent, Harkin said it's "definitely possible. There could be some shifting, but to a great extent, that's already happened in our area."

He said there might be more shifting to cash rents in the Southeast.

Harkin refused to speculate on the political effect a Bush farm bill veto might have on Republican candidates for Congress this fall. "Let's just get the job done," he said.

Representative Herseth Sandlin said that based on comments made by Republican members of the farm bill conference committee that "if it isn't signed, we have a good shot at overriding a veto."

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) told reporters Thursday morning that he hopes President George W. Bush will sign the developing farm bill, which he said he expects to be able to send to the House and Senate for final votes next week.

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