Senate moves farm bill

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WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate finished its version of the new farm bill Feb. 13. The amended House bill, which passed with a 58-40 vote, includes a payment limitation amendment and a new $2 billion countercyclical payment program for dairy farmers.

More debate. After Congress returns next week from its recess, a conference committee will be appointed to get to work on merging the House and Senate versions. Once the compromise is reached, the conference version must be approved by the House and Senate, respectively, before being sent to the White House for the President’s signature.

The Bush administration likes the House version better than the Senate offering, which it says “missed the mark.” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said the Senate bill “front-loads spending in the first five years, leaving farm programs shortchanged in the long-term… The House-passed bill spreads the funding much more evenly over a 10-year period.”

But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said the new five-year bill comes at a “crucial time.”

“Our family farmers and rural communities are struggling,” Harkin said. “This is the economic recovery package rural and small town America needs.”

Payment limitation. Harkin also backed the $275,000 payment limitation amendment, saying it will “ensure that more of the support gets to the farmers who actually need help.”

But he isn’t confident that the amendment will squeak through the rest of the legislative process. “We will have our work cut out for us in order to protect this provision in a conference committee.”

The Senate version also contains a farm-based renewable energy title for the first time.

Wrong direction. Sen. Dick Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ag Committee, opposed the bill, saying it “creates incentives for overproduction by making larger payments to a few big farms.”

Lugar said he’d work to retain provisions on conservation, rural development, ag research, and renewable energy, but said the legislation “goes in the wrong direction” in terms of overall spending.

“This is a program that transfers taxpayers’ money to a select few.”

The Senate bill would authorize $45 billion in new spending through 2006; the House version authorizes $38 billion.

Packer ban. The Senate also supported an amendment by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to prohibit a packer from owning or feeding livestock intended for slaughter. They can, however, contract for livestock as long as they don’t exert “managerial, operational or supervisory control” over either livestock or the farming operation to “such an extent that the producer is no longer materially participating in the management of the operation.”

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, was opposing the Grassley amendment with an amendment of his own that called for a nine-month study of the issue.

Other bill highlights include:

* Increased marketing loan rates and improved loan rate equity;

* Mandate of country-of-original labeling of fresh produce, meats, peanuts and farm-raised fish;

* A payment limitation on EQIP payments to concentrated livestock feeding operations (CAFOs);

* A boost of more than $800 million a year in spending on food stamps and other nutrition programs;

One of the Senate amendments approved unanimously declared that “no Social Security surplus funds should be used to pay to make currently scheduled tax cuts permanent or for wasteful spending.”

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