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Senate Ag Committee members look ahead on eve of farm bill markup

In a day in which Senate Ag Committee chairman and Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin delayed the release of the Chairman's mark, the prelude to Wednesday's Senate farm bill markup, committee members expressed confidence the plan in place will see fresh air beyond committee chambers by the week's end.

But, even though it should reach the Senate floor by the time the Senate convenes next week, one key piece of the farm bill will have not yet been hammered out. But, it's by design, as ag committee members say the addition and structure of farm program payment limits can only be done in Senate floor deliberations.

"There will be some provisions in committee, but frankly, there are not enough votes in the committee to limit payments," Sen. John Thune (R-SD) said Tuesday morning. "We have a better chance of winning once we get to the floor. It will be discussed in the committee, but to really get serious about payment limits, we have to wait until we get to the floor, because there's not the political support in the committee.

"It will be a challenge...It's going to be a very heavy lift to get payment limits passed in the Senate that are more aggressive than in the committee."

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) says waiting for the bill to reach the Senate floor will help move the process along. The Iowa Republican is confident payment limit debate won't derail the entire bill's progress, regardless of how high the limits or how they're established.

"I'd just as soon it not be included [in the chairman's mark] and we'll do it on the floor, because then nobody's going to be arguing that something that's in the bill is better. We've not seen language from [Senators] Harkin or Chambliss or Conrad yet for their unified mark, so it may not be in there," Grassley said Tuesday. "But, if it's in there, I think it's going to be such a large number that it's going to be laughable. Maybe they don't want to be embarrassed by it and leave it out.

Grassley added he'll push for a hard payment cap rather than basing limits on the adjusted gross income (AGI) formula. "We've put together a coalition over the last two years of agriculture and non-agriculture interested, and they're very much interested in helping us with the payment limits," he said. "The AGI's a new approach. We just ought to play it safe -- why change horses in the middle of the stream?"

In the end, Grassley said he expects little opposition once the payment limit topic is brought up on the Senate floor. "I have every reason to believe I would have their support," he said of Democratic Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa and Kent Conrad of North Dakota.

Regarding other farm bill provisions looking ahead to markup, Thune said he's working to include a "Sodsaver" provision that would eliminate crop insurance and Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) payments for farmers who break native sod ground for cultivation. In addition, the South Dakota Republican is pushing for a permanent disaster program that he says will end the industry's reliance on annual appropriations in the event of an ag disaster like the drought in his state in recent years.

"It makes sense to have contingency funds in place so that we are able to respond when we have disasters," he said Tuesday of the program he's hoping will provide $5 billion for permanent disaster assistance through the life of the 2007 farm bill.

Thune on Tuesday acknowledged Ag Committee chairman Tom Harkin's push for a stronger program similar to today's Conservation Security Program. He said the $1.28 billion above baseline proposed to extend the current CSP is "pretty secure" and will likely become part of the Senate's bill.

"[Harkin] has been responsive to concerns we've raised about other conservation programs getting fully funded," Thune said. "I suspect it is probably going to be pretty secure simply because there was a lot of give and take."

In a day in which Senate Ag Committee chairman and Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin delayed the release of the Chairman's mark, the prelude to Wednesday's Senate farm bill markup, committee members expressed confidence the plan in place will see fresh air beyond committee chambers by the week's end.

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