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Harken: Individual programs secondary to completing a passable

WASHINGTON -- The farm bill keeps inching along, but House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., has made it clear to the Senate that it must abandon its plan for a wide variety of tax credits if it wants his cooperation in pr...

WASHINGTON -- The farm bill keeps inching along, but House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., has made it clear to the Senate that it must abandon its plan for a wide variety of tax credits if it wants his cooperation in providing $10 billion in additional funding for the farm bill, a spokesman said April 3.

Although Rangel told reporters April 1 that the farm bill should do more to address soaring food prices, his spokesman said "Chairman Rangel is not seeking more money for nutrition. He is looking to ensure that his promise to fund the nutrition provisions will not be manipulated to pay for extraneous projects in the Senate. Farm bill negotiators should spend less time worrying about racehorses and timber companies and more time helping American families cope with the rising cost of food at the grocery store. The sooner they stop trying to curry favor and get back to the original intent of the bill, the sooner they'll have a final product that can pass with strong bipartisan support."

Rangel, who is African-American, represents the Harlem district of New York.

The Rangel spokesman was refering to more than 60 tax breaks the Senate Finance Committee added to the farm bill when it marked up a section of the farm bill that later passed the Senate. The tax breaks include one that would decrease the depreciation period for racehorses, an issue of importance to the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The addition of tax breaks was made possible because the House-passed farm bill includes an offset to pay for an additional $4.2 billion in nutrition programs over five years or $11.5 billion over 10 years. The farm bill conference report framework would provide $9.5 billion over 10 years for nutrition programs, but that includes international food aid and domestic snack programs.

Rangel has said publicly that he agreed to use his powers as Ways and Means chairman to provide offsets to increase farm bill funding so members could ease eligibility for food stamps and increase benefit levels, but he now thinks the Senate took advantage of the House's addition of the tax measure to add the tax breaks rather than spend all the money on nutrition benefits. It is unclear whether taking out the tax provisions would automatically increase the amount of money available for nutrition.

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Tax breaks

Senate Finance ranking member Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has been leading a campaign to retain at least some of the tax measures. Grassley said a biofuels tax credit would be in the bill and that "there are some things in there that certain senators that are in very powerful positions, both Republican and Democrat, have to have if there is going to be a bill passed."

An aide to Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., declined to comment on the tax issue, but said, "Sen. Baucus is aware of Chairman Rangel's concerns and agrees that robust nutrition programs are needed in the farm bill as well as disaster assistance."

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said April 3 that a deal to finance the additional $10 billion in the farm bill is holding it up, but that he hopes the issue is resolved within the next 48 hours.

"The clock is ticking," Harkin told reporters in a telephone call. "We now have an agreed upon budget framework for the farm bill. We do not yet have a resolution on the source of the funding." Harkin said Baucus and Rangel disagree over what offset to use to pay for the bill.

Harkin said that if agreement on financing is reached during the April 5 weekend Congress still could finish the farm bill before the current extension of the 2002 farm bill expires April 18.

Harkin also said he wants to finish a farm bill that President Bush will sign, not one that Bush might veto.

"We are not really looking for an override strategy. We are looking for a bill the president will sign." Harkind said.

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Wanting a done deal

Harkin indicated that he has shifted from being an advocate for programs within the bill to an organizer of a bill that can be passed. Harkin said that the additional $10 billion above baseline funding "along with funds we have scrubbed from within the baseline" had enabled the negotiators to "to create a new disaster program that a few people want" as well as increase funding for conservation, energy and nutrition programs.

Harkin said he is not totally satisfied with the bill, but that "in trying to accommodate various expectations and demands, in the end we can have a pretty decent bill." He also said the bill would be "much better than an extension."

Harkin said the $4 billion increase in the budget for conservation would provide $1.28 billion for the Conservation Security Program and $2.3 billion for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which is used largely to clean up livestock facilities, with the rest divided between wetlands and grasslands conservation.

Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., said April 3 that he disagrees with the framework plan to lower the acreage cap on the land-idling Conservation Reserve Program from 39.2 million acres to 32 million acres.

But Harkin said April 3 that so many farmers are taking land out of the CRP to put in back into production in response to high commodity prices that "we'll be lucky to be at 30" million acres. But Harkin said he is not really satisfied with the conservation budget because he thinks more money is needed to deal with conservation problems on land that is going back into production. Environmental Defense, the Environmental Working Group and Defenders of Wildlife joined Kind in his news conference April 3 to protest a lowering of the conservation budget increase from $4.95 billion over 10 years to $4 billion, but the Theodore Roosevelt Partnership and other conservation groups have endorsed the $4 billion plan because it uses some money saved from lowering the CRP cap for other conservation programs.

Harkin said he would favor a proposal from family farm groups for stricter payment limitations, but said he does not think members of the conference committee will support it.

"I can support it, but it's not clear that is going to get any headway. I just don't know if it will sail," he said.

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Harkin said he thinks the payment limits issue might move in the opposite direction.

The Bush administration proposed that farmers and landowners whose adjusted gross income is $200,000 per year or higher should not get commodity program benefits, but it has agreed to raising the adjusted gross income cap to $500,000.

Harkin said April 3 he thinks the Bush administration might agree to raising the cap to $600,000.

Harkin also said he does not know if there would be votes in committee to support the administration's proposal to end farmers' ownership of commodities after they have claimed farm benefits because of low prices. This "beneficial interest" allows farmers to claim the benefit when prices are low and hold the commodity to sell when prices are high.

Harkin said rumors among House members that Republican senators are balking at cuts in direct payments for other programs and at stricter payment limits are true.

But Harkin said, "Do they have the votes when the crunch comes? Do they want to kill the whole bill? These are going to be open votes. We'll see what people want to do. They may prevail. Certainly people will know where the votes are on this."

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