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Extra funds divvied up -- But Baucus, Conrad say the numbers are 'dead on arrival'

WASHINGTON -- The Democratic chairmen and the highest-ranking Republican members of the Senate and House Agriculture committees announced March 18 how they would divide up additional money in the new farm bill, but Senate Finance Committee Chairm...

WASHINGTON -- The Democratic chairmen and the highest-ranking Republican members of the Senate and House Agriculture committees announced March 18 how they would divide up additional money in the new farm bill, but Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont, pronounced the package "dead on arrival" because it does not contain enough money for the permanent farm disaster program that he wants to create in the bill.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., another advocate of a disaster aid program, also said the numbers were "unacceptable."

Current law extended

The announcement occurred after the House and Senate passed an extension of the 2002 farm bill until April 18. President Bush signed the extension, but also called on Congress to finish the new farm bill by April 18 or send him a one-year or longer extension to sign. But Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said March 18 that Bush's statement did not mean that the administration prefers an extension. In a news conference, Schafer also called on Congress to finish a bill, but again said President Bush would sign a new bill that includes tax increases to pay for it.

The House and Senate Agriculture committees are trying to put together a single bill from the farm bills that passed the House and Senate last year. The House, Senate and the Bush administration still have not reached an agreement on how to come up with the $10 billion over 10 years they have all decided to add to the farm bill above current spending, but the announcement of the allocations among titles was considered a breakthrough because preliminary budget numbers have been made public. Congress is on a two-week spring recess and will return to Washington March 31. Meantime, congressional staffers are working on the bill.

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Other allocations in the five-year bill would increase spending on a 10-year basis for nutrition including international food aid by $9.5 billion, conservation by $4.95 billion, commodity programs by $1.4 billion and disaster aid by $2.2 billion. Those increases would be made by possible by using $10 billion in additional spending as well by making reductions in research spending by $1.2 billion, crop insurance by $4 billion and farm bill spending in other areas by $4.4 billion. That $4.4 billion presumably includes shifting the timing of farm bill spending outside the period the bill covers.

Preliminary numbers

Baucus called the allocation plan "dead on arrival" because the framework includes only $2.2 billion rather than the $5.1 billion he was expecting for a permanent agriculture disaster program that he and Conrad have championed. Conrad also called the allocation "unacceptable." But a spokeswoman for Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said that Baucus and Conrad were overreacting because the framework announced March 18 was only preliminary and subject to change.

The Senate version of the farm included a $5.1 billion disaster fund that the Senate Finance Committee paid for by establishing a trust fund using tariff revenues, but the House version of the bill does not include a disaster program. In a news release, Baucus said, "This new farm bill proposal is dead on arrival. I won't vote for or help to fund any agreement that does not do disaster assistance right for our farmers in need. I bet other Senators will feel the same. The National Farmers Union made stable, permanent disaster assistance its number-one priority for the farm bill, but this deal slashes the Senate's good plan for disaster assistance in half."

He added, "On the farm bill, the Finance Committee did something it's done nowhere else, finding resources and freeing up funds for the Agriculture Committee to pursue priorities like nutrition programs. If we continue to work together, we can keep America's farmers from getting the short end of the stick on disaster assistance. This proposed agreement isn't good enough."

Conrad said, "I find the disaster numbers unacceptable and I hope that we can improve on it. We are a long way from the end of the story on the numbers here. Senator Baucus and I are delivering the message that this is not going to work. This puts the financing package at risk. After all this time you would think that they would have come up with a better package. I would have just hoped that after all this time they would have put out a number that doesn't put funding at risk."

Balancing act

A spokeswoman for Harkin said, "The goal of this farm bill is to balance farmer's disaster needs with all the other needs for farmers in this bill: specialty crops, commodity programs and conservation with our country's nutrition and energy needs. This table represents hard-won progress between the two chambers to move the farm bill forward. As in any framework, modifications are expected."

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