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Harkin says he'll try to strengthen ACR

Senate Agriculure Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) said today that it may take a week for the Senate to pass a farm bill after it comes up for a vote on the floor next Monday or Tuesday.

Next Monday or Tuesday is when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has assured Harkin that the Senate will begin debate on the farm bill. But because there will be a lot of amendments to the bill, it won't move quickly.

"Farm bills do take a lot of time, so I expect that most of next week we'll be on the floor," Harkin told reporters.

Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND) plan to introduce an amendment to cap commodity payments at $250,000 per year for a farm couple, a limit that Harkin also supports.

And Harkin said he may have some amendments as well. One could be an attempt to strengthen the bill's new revenue-based safety net, Average Crop Revenue (ACR), which Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) and other ag committee members may have weakened with a last minute change in committee. The National Corn Growers Association said last week that the committee's action makes the ACR much less attractive.

"I'm a little concerned about the final result of what happened to ACR in committee," Harkin said today. He said he thought the committee had agreed to support the ACR until Roberts unveiled a last-minute change. It was aimed partly at lessening the impact of ACR on the crop insurance industry.

Harkin said today that the Congressional Budget Office, which determines the cost of the program to the government, hasn't finished its work completely.

The ACR originally was estimated to save $3 to $3.5 billion over five years. It would start in 2010. Farmers will have the chance to choose to stay in the current safety net program of direct payments, marketing loans and counter-cyclical payments. Or they could opt for ACR, which will include a $15 an acre direct payment regardless of the crop grown, ACR will pay farmers when revenue drops below a state-level trigger.

Farmers enrolled in the ACR would give up marketing loans but Harkin said he believes those with good market and yield prospects will like ACR. "They're protecting themselves on the downside," he said.

He said the CBO "score" of the cost shows enough additional ssavings that he believes the new direct payment for ACR will be paid on 100% of a farm’s crop base. (The Roberts amendment initially was aimed at limiting it to 85% but Roberts agreed to a higher percentage if money is available).

Harkin said he doesn't know yet if enough money will be available to cover more than 85% of a farm's base with revenue protection, but "we think it will be pretty good."

Harkin said there will be amendments on the floor to reduce direct payments for the old safety net in the farm bill in order to use that money for rural economic development, energy programs and nutrition programs.

"It's on the table," he said. "As you know, I've never been a fan of direct payments."

On that issue, Harkin's Iowa colleague on the agriculture committee, Republican Chuck Grassley, disagrees.

Because direct payments go to landowners regardless of the crop grown, they are not considered trade distorting under World Trade Organization rules, Grassley said Tusday.

"I think it's wrong to obliterate direct payments," he said.

Grassley said that, like Harkin, he expects strong support for his $250,000 payment limit amendment when the Senate debates the farm bill next week.

Even if that cap passes, however, he's not certain what will happen with members of the Senate meet with House members to craft a final farm bill. In 2002, a Senate-passed cap on payments was killed in the final farm bill due to opposition from the House.

This year, "I thought it would be less with a Democrat House of Representatives, but I'm not sure now," Grassley said.

Senate Agriculure Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) said today that it may take a week for the Senate to pass a farm bill after it comes up for a vote on the floor next Monday or Tuesday.

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