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Thune: RFS headed to the farm bill

The energy bill may be running out of gas, but that doesn't mean a new Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) won't reach the president's desk by the end of the year or early in 2008.

"I want to move it ahead with any vehicle possible," Thune told reporters on Wednesday. "It's important we have it in the farm bill in the event that the energy bill gets stalled out."

The current version of the energy awaiting submission to the Oval Office includes some "controversial amendments," Thune says, and as such, would likely face a presidential veto if ushered through to that point. Therefore, including the RFS into the farm bill will speed up the process.

"If the energy bill passes in its current form, it will be vetoed by the president and we'll be back to ground zero," he says. "I know we're going to pass the farm bill through the Senate, and if it's not through Congress by the end of this year, then it will be sometime early next year. The energy bill still looks uncertain to me."

What about rumblings from the executive branch about a possible farm bill veto? Thune Wednesday acknowledged this, but added the White House knows the necessity of the farm bill. In fact, the addition of the RFS to the farm bill could be a stronger argument in favor of the president signing the bill soon.

"To get a veto-proof majority, it might be a heavy lift. That's the worst case scenario. Despite the rhetoric coming out of the White House, they know a farm bill will be passed," Thune says. "If we have the RFS in the farm bill, it should give the administration more incentive to approve it because the president is the one who proposed it first."

But, reaching that point in the next few days, Thune adds, will require a shift away from the typical pattern in Congress at this time of the year. "There's a lot of year-end wrangling that goes on here," he says. "It's gamesmanship and people looking for a political advantage, and it's time to put that aside. We've got a good, strong farm bill on the floor of the senate, and it's now just a question of getting it stripped of bad amendments and getting it passed."

Wednesday's Senate session included discussions and votes on many of the farm bill amendments. On Thursday, the Senate is expected to take action on the Grassley-Dorgan amendment, one that would enact new limits on farm program payments. On Tuesday, the Senate strongly voted against the Lugar-Lautenberg amendment that would have stripped commodity title funding altogether. Such an approach -- a vast departure from the current farm program -- would end up costing taxpayers billions.

"With higher commodity prices, we have saved the taxpayers $22 billion in farm payments that otherwise would have been made," Thune said Wednesday. "Because we've had prices go up because of corn demand for ethanol, it helped raise wheat and soybean price, and because prices have been high, payments haven't been made and it's saved taxpayers."

Late on Wednesday, a short-term extension of the 2002 farm bill was approved to bridge the time gap during which the Senate continues to take action on the bill. "Chairman Harkin agreed to the short-term extension of the current farm bill to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks while we work on a new bill in Congress," Kate Cyrul, communications director for Senate Ag Committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA), said Wednsday. "This need became more evident -- and Chairman Peterson and his staff were convinced -- when economists realized we could lose billions from our baseline if anything were to lapse. This short-term extension provides funding at a low level to keep agencies running, while keeping the pressure on to get a new, five-year farm bill passed as soon as possible."

To that end, discussion of both Republican and Democratic Senate farm bill amendments is scheduled to resume Thursday morning. The Grassley-Dorgan payment limits amendment, sponsored by Senators Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND), is slated for discussion at 8:15 am.

"I am optimistic that the Dorgan-Grassley approach to payment limitations will be included as part of the farm bill," Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) said Wednesday of the amendment. "Though it was not included in the Chairman's mark announced earlier this year, I have been working with my colleagues to ensure the provision gets a strong vote in the Senate."

"We would like to see more aggressive payment limits included," Thune said Wednesday. "We're going to do everything we can do to get that done."

The energy bill may be running out of gas, but that doesn't mean a new Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) won't reach the president's desk by the end of the year or early in 2008.

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