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House Ag Committee chairman not giving up

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat, is the epitome of low-key leadership. In moments of crisis, Peterson projects an image of amused detachment.

So, when the U.S. Senate failed by five votes to move its own farm bill past a partisan stranglehold, Peterson expressed disappointment, but no outrage.

"We've been kind of quiet, trying to give the Senate room to get done what they need to," he said in his first press conference with ag reporters in months.

"I was hoping they'd get a bill out, any kind of bill out, so we could go to conference," he said, referring to the last stage of writing a farm bill, when a conference committee of House and Senate ag committee members negotiate a final bill.

But Peterson said he still thinks a farm bill is possible early next year, that he hopes farm-state voters will convince a few more Republican senators to join Democrats in passing a farm bill when Congress returns from its Thanksgiving recess in December.

"Some of these people ought to be embarrassed at some of the amendments they're dropping," Peterson said, referring to amendments that Republicans in the Senate wanted to consider with the farm bill. Many were political, Peterson said. "They wanted to drop us into drivers licenses for illegal immigrants."

"Hopefully, folks will get an earful back home," Peterson said Friday.

Peterson said there will be little support for extending a farm bill. He chuckled when he said that the extension bill filed yesterday was identical to one he had introduced when he was in the minority on the committee -- something the bill's author, Kansas Republican Jerry Moran said as well on Thursday.

The House and Senate ag committee versions of a farm bill have broad support among farm groups, Peterson said, so supporting an extension without the farm bill's new programs might be tough.

"Just about everybody I know of thinks this bill is much better than the current law," he said.

Then there's the issue of paying for a farm bill extension, which Peterson said would likely be for two years, not one.

"There's going to be considerably less money in the baseline than there is now," he said, referring to the spending projection that must be followed when writing the farm bill.

Peterson said that pushing farm bill completion into early 2008 won't have to trigger older farm laws. A farm bill has been approved even later in the year in the past.

If the Senate is able to muster 60 votes to end farm bill stalling when it returns in December, a bill is still possible, he said. A conference committee would then draft a final bill in January, he said.

Peterson said that he thinks a ban on packer ownership would not get support of the conference committee. And a payment limit might not, either. Instead, Peterson would like to bar payments to nonfarmers.

"I am determined to do everything in my power to stop nonfarmers from getting farm payments," Peterson said.

He thinks there could be some sort of revenue-based optional program for producers in the final bill as well, but he opposes changing marketing loans to recourse loans, as the Senate bill does.

"That's a slippery slope," he said.

Peterson admitted that he doesn't understand what drove the Republican leadership to stall the farm bill. He said he didn't think that was due to pressure from the White House.

"It almost looks to me like the President convinced Republicans he was going to veto this bill," Peterson said. So, instead of passing a bill, then having to defend the President's veto to constituents, some Republicans may have preferred to kill the bill in the Senate, he said.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat, is the epitome of low-key leadership. In moments of crisis, Peterson projects an image of amused detachment.

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