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Senate Ag Committee leaders begin farm bill talks

Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) and committee ranking Republican member Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) delivered the following remarks this morning on beginning markup and subsequent debate for the 2007 farm bill.

"Good morning. After months of hard work and spirited negotiations, I am pleased to present to the committee the Chairman's mark of the 2007 farm bill, The Food and Energy Security Act.

"First things first, I'd like to thank my committee colleagues for their assistance in shaping this bill. In particular, I'd like to thank our Ranking Member, Senator Saxby Chambliss, for his leadership and partnership on the committee.

"This is a bipartisan bill that, I believe, will enjoy broad support on the committee. It conforms to a strict budget allocation and pay-as-you-go budget rules, yet still addresses the diverse geographical and philosophical views on our Committee in a balanced way. I would like to thank Chairman Conrad of the Budget Committee and Chairman Baucus of the Finance Committee for their help in making this possible.

"There are significant achievements in this bill. It is a forward-looking bill that makes critical investments in energy, conservation, nutrition, rural development and promoting better diets and health for all Americans. It maintains a strong safety net for farm producers, and strengthens programs that will help agricultural producers of all kinds across our nation.

"The commodities title of the proposal continues basic features of the 2002 bill, which have worked well, and it gives producers a new option, beginning in the 2010 crop year, to choose to participate in a state-level revenue protection system. The program offers producers better options for managing their farm's risk in today's uncertain, rapidly changing farm environment. The bill greatly increases assistance to growers of fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops.

"In the nutrition title, we strengthen our commitment to fighting hunger and promoting sound health and nutrition. We update archaic nutrition program rules, increase Food Stamp benefit levels, and stop the erosion of benefits that has gone unchecked since 1996. We expand the very popular Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program to reach nearly 4.5 million children in elementary schools nationwide.

"The conservation title has an estimated $4 billion in new budget authority. This will allow CSP -- now renamed the Conservation Stewardship Program -- to grow vigorously at a pace of more than 13 million acres a year, which with the 15 million acres already enrolled, will equal 80 million acres in five years. This funding will also continue to allow enrollment in the Wetland Reserve Program and the Grassland Reserve Program. We devote $165 million to help fund the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. This is a very strong conservation title, despite severe budget limits.

"In the energy title, we provide $1.1 billion in investments in farm-based energy. The Chairman's mark supports programs to help farmers to transition into biomass crops, and supports the construction of biorefineries from cellulose ethanol with a loan guarantee program that will provide up to 80% of total project cost with a loan cap of $250 million. I would like especially to thank Senators Amy Klobuchar and John Thune for their strong support of these efforts. We expand markets for biobased products, and invest in farm-based energy R&D, and in helping farmers, ranchers and rural small businesses move to renewable energy and energy efficiency.

"The bill's livestock title will promote market opportunities for producers; it will protect animal health; and it will strengthen enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act. This title includes the House compromise on mandatory Country of Origin Labeling, with minor changes.

"In the rural development title, we have provided nearly half a billion dollars for a variety of initiatives that will promote economic growth and create jobs in rural communities. This title will help agriculture producers and small businesses to create and capitalize on new opportunities. It will bring quality, affordable day care as well as improved access to broadband to rural America. It will provide loans to rural hospitals so that they can acquire the best equipment possible.

"Overall, this new farm bill will be good for farmers, good for rural communities and good for the environment. It will promote the health as well as the energy security of the American people. And, as I said, it does all this within a strict budget allocation and pay-as-you-go budget rules.

"Once again, I'd like to thank Ranking Member Chambliss for his leadership and cooperation in bringing this Chairman's mark to the committee. And I now yield to him for his opening statement."

"As Ranking Member of the Agriculture Committee, I am looking forward to debating the 2007 farm bill in the Senate. This markup is the result of many, many long hours of field hearings, meetings and negotiations dating back almost a year and a half ago.

"My staff, Senator Harkin's staff and Senator Conrad's staff has been working tirelessly for the past few months to craft a bipartisan bill which, we believe, strikes accord with essentially every Member of the Committee. In this process, we have reached out to Committee Members to determine the best direction for the agriculture policy that will govern how American farmers and ranchers operate for the next five years.

"America has very diverse agricultural landscape. Whether it's peanut farms in Georgia, asparagus farms in Michigan, or growing energy crops in South Dakota, we all have parochial interests around this table and every part of the farm bill has a large impact on agribusiness and the U.S. economy as a whole.

"Keeping that in mind, we must ensure that the farm bill provides balance among all involved in order to pass new legislation. I will admit that there are some provisions in this bill that I typically would not support if they stood alone. But, I am committed to getting a strong, bipartisan farm bill passed out of the Committee and passed in the Senate. I support this legislative package that has been carefully negotiated and deliberated.

"As we are all aware, the tight budget situation is the primary reason for the delay in getting a new law written. The fact we are here today with no additional money above our baseline is a testament to the hard work put in by the Members and staffs to compromise and strike a delicate balance between all the titles in the bill.

"Do I wish we had more resources? Yes. But we find ourselves in a very different situation compared to the last time the Congress passed a farm bill. It is ironic that the strong prices we are experiencing today in farm country would make our jobs more difficult in drafting a new law.

"The offsets and tax funding provisions passed out of the Finance Committee are helping to free-up over $3 billion that otherwise would not have been available to honor many of your requests. I believe Senators Baucus and Grassley put together a balanced package that compliments the bill before us and strengthens the farm safety net for farmers and ranchers. Our intention is to marry-up the farm bill and the Finance Committee funds into a total package on the Senate floor.

"Ultimately, I hope to see the Senate pass a farm bill that does not require raising taxes to fund new spending, does not disregard existing trade agreements, and protects the safety net of American farmers and ranchers, which are the backbone of this country. Let us remember, that at the end of day, the reason we are here is to represent the hard working men and women who get dirt under their fingernails each and every day to provide the highest quality agricultural products in the world."

Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) and committee ranking Republican member Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) delivered the following remarks this morning on beginning markup and subsequent debate for the 2007 farm bill.

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