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Published July 26, 2011, 09:30 AM

Peterson backs ‘Gang of Six’ proposal

WASHINGTON — As President Obama and congressional leaders continued to search for common ground to achieve a budget deal and raise the federal debt ceiling by Aug. 2, House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., July 20 endorsed the Gang of Six senators’ budget proposal and said he has instructed his staff to begin researching a farm bill with the $11 billion in cuts that the proposal would involve.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — As President Obama and congressional leaders continued to search for common ground to achieve a budget deal and raise the federal debt ceiling by Aug. 2, House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., July 20 endorsed the Gang of Six senators’ budget proposal and said he has instructed his staff to begin researching a farm bill with the $11 billion in cuts that the proposal would involve.

“I think this is coming together,” Peterson told Agweek. “I told my staff to start looking at this yesterday.”

Congress has to raise the debt ceiling or the government will not be able to continue borrowing money to pay U.S. obligations, such as interest on the debt, Social Security and federal salaries, including those for troops. While much has been made about the government spending more than it takes in, one of the reasons the government borrows money is that government expenditures and tax payments do not always occur at the same time and the government needs authority for short-term as well as long-term borrowing.

Earlier this year, the “Gang of Six” senators — three Democrats and three Republicans — had come up with a proposal, but the group fell apart when Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., dropped out of the group. Coburn rejoined the group after it appeared that antitax activist Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform endorsed the group's plan because it included a way to deal with the alternative minimum tax, which has required congressional action each year to avoid it being applied to the middle class. Norquist later said he had not endorsed the plan.

The Gang of Six proposal would cut agriculture spending by $11 billion over 10 years, but protect food stamps and allow the agriculture committees to decide how to make the cuts. The overall Gang of Six proposal would be a two-step legislative process that would involve an initial $500 billion down payment to secure deficit savings and then require the appropriate committees within six months to report legislation according to a plan in the bill. The $500 billion initial down payment would impose statutory caps on security and nonsecurity discretionary spending through 2015 and make other cuts, while the second step would include the $11 billion in agriculture cuts.

Presidential support

President Obama threw his support to the Gang of Six proposal, but it appeared unlikely that that Congress could act on the proposal before Aug. 2 and probably would have to do a short-term deal to raise the debt ceiling and a bigger deal later. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a member of the Gang of Six, noted that the proposal had not been written in legislative language or scored by the Congressional Budget Office. Other proposals including those by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Vice President Biden also are part of the policy mix.

The other members of the Gang of Six besides Coburn and Durbin, are Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., Mike Crapo, R-Idaho and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. Conrad and Chambliss worked together closely on the 2008 farm bill and presumably helped protect agriculture.

One key farm lobbyist said that farmers would be “dancing cartwheels” if the cuts in farm programs can be held to $11 billion over 10 years. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., proposed a $48 billion cut over 10 years in the fiscal year 2012 budget bill that the House passed. Senate Agriculture Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has said that the passage of the Ryan budget has made it increasingly difficult to keep the discussion of ag cuts at the $10 billion proposed under the Simpson-Bowles presidential commission plan.

Neither Stabenow nor Conrad have been willing to comment on the proposed farm cuts since the Gang of Six plan was revived July 19. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., did not return an email request for comment by presstime.

Congressional leaders have signaled that the House and the Senate will be in session, including during weekends, until some sort of deal to raise the debt limit is reached.

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