Farm bill enters critical period


WASHINGTON – Farm bill conferees worked long hours last weekend following a rocky week of negotiations that included a House offer, Senate counter-offer, lawmakers walking out of negotiations and sparring in the media.

Talks broke down in midweek, with both the House and Senate pointing fingers of blame. Although negotiations resumed at week’s end and over the weekend, progress was slight.

“It has been extremely difficult to move forward on this critical piece of legislation because House conferees have refused to compromise on a number of key provisions,” said Sen. Tom Daschle, Senate majority leader and farm bill conference committee member.

That statement April 18 prompted a quick retort from Ohio’s John Boehner, vice chair of the House Agriculture Committee.

“House conferees voted in bipartisan and unanimous fashion to offer the Senate a good-faith compromise,” Boehner said. “Senator Daschle has rejected the proposal by offering nothing more than empty rhetoric and wild finger-pointing. It’s clear that Senator Daschle does not want a bill. He wants an election-year issue.”

In addition to this exchange, Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has made it clear he wouldn’t accept everything in the comprehensive proposal offered by the House Chairman Larry Combest, R-Texas.

House compromise. The House conferees submitted a compromise to their Senate counterparts Thursday that offered a few pennies more on their loan rates, and included a cap of $360,000 on total subsidy payments to farmers, down from the House’s earlier cap of $550,000. The Senate would limit farm couples to no more than $275,000 in farm subsidies a year – a level that conferees refuse to budge. Current law limits payments to $460,000.

Saturday’s negotiations on payment limitations was a “bitter one,” said one source. A tentative agreement says payment limitations would not apply to 2002 crops.

The House compromise accepted a Senate provision to create a pilot program for farm savings accounts, but even its future is questionable after Harkin commented that the $36 million pilot program could be spent elsewhere in the farm bill.

The House compromise also sought a presidential commission in the sticky packer livestock ownership issue, to produce a report by December 2004. Country-of-origin labeling also continues to be a divisive issue.

Members resumed public meetings Tuesday, April 23.

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