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Hoping for a farm bill landslide

Led by National Farmers Union, 557 groups have signed a letter urging members of Congress to vote for the farm bill, which was posted on the House and Senate Agriculture Committee websites Tuesday.

The House could vote on the bill in less than 24 hours, on Wednesday. That's the crucial battleground for passing a bill with enough votes to override President George Bush's expected veto.

In a statement from the White House, President Bush repeated his opposition to the bill.

"I am deeply disappointed in the conference report filed today as it falls far short of the proposal my Administration put forward. If this bill makes it to my desk, I will veto it," the President said. "Today's farm economy is very strong and that is something to celebrate. It is also an appropriate time to better target subsidies and put forth real reform. Farm income is expected to exceed the 10-year average by fifty percent this year, yet Congress' bill asks American taxpayers to subsidize the incomes of married farmers who earn $1.5 million per year. I believe doing so at a time of record farm income is irresponsible and jeopardizes America's support for necessary farm programs."

Bush also criticized the bill's cost, which he said has about $20 billion in new spending and its rebalancing of some loan rates and target prices. The Administration views that as a trade-distorting increase in farm program spending. He asked Congress to extend current farm law for at least one year.

Meanwhile, the letters urging the House and Senate to ignore Bush may be the only time a letter backing a farm bill has been signed by groups as diverse as the American Soybean Association, National Corn Growers Association, Kenai Peninsula (Alaska) Food Bank, and Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease Foundation. (Mad Cow is a variant of Cruetzfeld-Jakob Disease). Scores of local food banks signed on to back a bill that puts most of its new money into food stamps and nutrition programs.

Notably absent are livestock and packer groups including the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and National Pork Producers, as well as most environmental groups. American Farmland Trust and the National Association of Conservation Districts signed. So did Dairy Farmers of America, a large dairy co-op, and R-CALF USA.

"This is by no means a perfect piece of legislation, and none of our organizations achieved everything we had individually requested," their letter says. "However, it is a carefully balanced compromise of policy priorities that has broad support among organizations representing the nation's agriculture, conservation, and nutrition interests."

Mary Kay Thatcher, a lobbyist for another group that signed the letter, American Farm Bureau Federation, told Agriculture Online that Farm Bureau members are meeting today with members of the House urging a vote for the bill. Some who are waivering are saying they still have questions about exactly what's in the bill, she said.

It would take 290 members of the House to override a veto but a simple majority to pass the bill this week.

"I can't really tell you whether we get to 290 tomorrow or not," she said, "but I think that if we have to override the veto, we will have the votes to do so."

Senator Chuck Grassley, the top ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee and a key farm bill negotiator, told reporters that Bush may not push members of his own party too hard to vote against the bill.

And, he said, "I think when you have a lame duck President, he has ver6y weak loyalty from his own party."

Grassley also said he was disappointed in the farm bill's weak payment reform but that it's better than current law.

Some groups that were disappointed in the bill are supporting it anyway.

The Sustainable Agriculture Coalition didn't sign the Farmers Union letter but it wrote members of the House and Senate to say they should back the bill.

"The bill makes significant improvements for working lands conservation, beginning and minority farmers and ranchers, organic production and research, and local and regional food systems, and for the first time in a farm bill advances the cause of increased competition and fairness in livestock markets," the letter says. "All of these important gains would be lost if the current farm bill were extended."

"That said, we are profoundly disappointed by the bill's failure to advance pro-family farm structural reform to crop production subsidies and deeper reforms in livestock market access, protect grassland ecosystems, or invest significantly in rural economic development," the letter adds. "Extension of the current farm bill, however, does not advance those urgent reforms or make those critical investments either."

The full letter from 557 farm bill supporters is posted on the National Farmers Union website.

Led by National Farmers Union, 557 groups have signed a letter urging members of Congress to vote for the farm bill, which was posted on the House and Senate Agriculture Committee websites Tuesday.

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