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46108

It's January, time to put farm program payments on a diet

The Democrats took control of Congress Thursday, and in spite of talk about bipartisanship one of the first bills to be considered is the same removal of restrictions on stem cell research that Congress has already passed once - and President George W. Bush vetoed. Bush's position on stem cell research hasn't changed.

Iowa's Democratic Senator, Tom Harkin, told reporters that he thinks the Senate at least will have the votes to override a second veto because Senators have seen what happened to Republican Senators who were defeated last November, perhaps in part because of support for the President's restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. "There's a lot more up [for re-election] two years from now and they've seen the handwriting on the wall," Harkin said.

Fortunately for farmers, agricultural policy seems to be less partisan. Harkin, who also takes over as the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, is not only pushing stem cell research. He's introduced a bill with Republican Senator Richard Lugar that will rapidly accelerate the nation's production of ethanol from grains and cellulose, as well as pushing Detroit to make more flexible fuel vehicles that will burn E-85, dispensed from more pumps that the same bill will require oil companies to install.

Harkin said he thinks the President will support that.

"He and I and countless other Americans are on the same page when it comes to our country's energy security," Harkin said.

One contentious issue in farm policy that Harkin and Bush also seem to agree on is the need for tighter payment limitations in the next Farm Bill.

"I think there's a recognition on all sides that something must be done on payment limitations," Harkin said.

Last year the Bush administration's proposed budget for agricultural spending included putting a firm cap of $250,000 on payments, partly be eliminating the three-entity rule that allows larger operations to collect more payments.

But Harkin and his Iowa Republican colleague, Senator Chuck Grassley, favor a firm cap on payments that can't be circumvented by setting up new farming entities.

"The triple entity rule probably is going to go by the wayside," Harkin said Thursday.

Harkin added that differences over payment limits are more regional that partisan. Cotton and rice producers, who have higher production costs than other commodities, have fought efforts to put rigid caps on farm program payments.

"We do have to recognize the distinct structure of southern agriculture," Harkin added. He hopes that Congress can do more to help move southern agriculture into energy production. Some studies have shown that the Southeast, with a longer growing season and high rainfall, has a natural advantage over other regions in growing crops like switchgrass, which could be turned into cellulosic ethanol.

"That could be an area where farmers in the south could shift their production patterns and become major producers of energy crops," Harkin said.

Harkin's first hearing as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee will be next week - on the subject of energy.

"Energy's going to be the engine that pulls this farm bill - or pushes it," Harkin said.

The Democrats took control of Congress Thursday, and in spite of talk about bipartisanship one of the first bills to be considered is the same removal of restrictions on stem cell research that Congress has already passed once - and President George W. Bush vetoed. Bush's position on stem cell research hasn't changed.

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