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Jurisdictional bickering slows farm bill progress

WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. put pressure on congressional farm leaders on March 6 to finish the long-stalled farm bill as soon as possible, but at press time, there was no agree...

WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. put pressure on congressional farm leaders on March 6 to finish the long-stalled farm bill as soon as possible, but at press time, there was no agreement with the Bush administration on the bill and a long-simmering jurisdictional dis-pute over which committee would control money the Senate Finance Committee provides for the farm bill became increasingly nasty and public.

Expiration date looms

The extension of the 2002 farm bill expires March 15. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., told the National Farmers Union at their convention in Las Vegas March 2 that he believes the House and Sen-ate farm leaders will be able to reach a basic agreement on the farm bill by March 14 when Congress leaves for its two- week spring re-cess, but that it will be necessary to extend the farm bill until April 15 so that the new bill can be finished.

But Reid told reporters March 6 that Pelosi had told him earlier in the week that she considers a monthlong extension of the bill too long. The same day, a Democratic House aide said in an e-mail that she "reluctantly supports a one-month extension." A Reid spokes-man added that Reid "would sup-port as short an extension as possi-ble."

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, also said on March 6 that a one-month extension may be necessary but that he is not enthusiastic about it be-cause Congress only gets its work done when it has a deadline.

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A Peterson spokesman said late March 6 that Peterson "supports extending the bill until April 15 only if a funding deal is in place to move the farm bill to conclusion. Other-wise, he doesn't support it."

Proposals

On March 1, the Bush administra-tion proposed a list of offsets and policy changes it could accept in return for a $10 billion increase over the $597 billion, 10-year baseline for the farm bill. But the offsets in-cluded a proposal to shorten the time the government would pay for senior citizens to get oxygen after they return home from the hospital. "Critics would have a field day" with a proposal like that Peterson said, while noting the White House ruled out all increases in government revenues from stricter compliance with tax laws.

On policy changes, Peterson said the administration letter indicated it had changed its position on farm-ers' payment limits by raising to $500,000 from $200,000 the adjusted gross income threshold above which farmers would not qualify for subsi-dies. It wants to maintain target prices and loan rates on crops and the milk income loss contract pro-gram at current levels, rather than raise them as the House and Senate bills do. It wants the sugar loan rate to stay at the current level, elimi-nate a provision requiring that 85 percent of the U.S. sugar supply come from domestic sources and eliminate a sugar-to-ethanol pro-gram. Peterson said the administra-tion wants a revenue-based counter-cyclical loan program for crops with a recourse loan, which would mean the farmers would have to repay it. Peterson said he would not support that program.

The administration letter pro-poses a change in the "tilt" in price between dairy products to limit any buildup in stock. The letter said the administration wants two items that are important to trade talks: elimi-nating the prohibition on planting fruits and vegetables on land that gets subsidies and a shift of 25 per-cent of the food aid budget to cash that can be used to purchase com-modities in developing countries.

Keepers of the funds

Meanwhile, Harkin told reporters that he disagreed with the statement of Senate Finance ranking member Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, that the Senate Finance Committee should retain jurisdiction over the money it provides for agriculture or risk be-coming a "banker" to other commit-tees.

Harkin said he did not believe that Grassley's view was popular even among Finance committee members, but Grassley said the Senate Fi-nance Committee members who also are conferees on the farm bill sup-ported him and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., issued a statement backing up Grassley. Senate Finance Com-mittee members who are conferees on the bill members include Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

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But a Harkin spokeswoman, said in an e-mail, "The chairs and rank-ing members of the Agriculture committees are not interested in getting a farm bill done at the ex-pense of losing jurisdiction of their committees." The Harkin statement reflected statements that Senate ranking member Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., House Agriculture Chairman Peterson and House Agriculture ranking member Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., have made in recent days. "It's a function of the Agriculture commit-tees to write a farm bill. We're not interested in giving up jurisdiction," Chambliss told reporters late March 6 after a meeting of the Agriculture chairs and ranking members.

It's unclear exactly what provi-sions Grassley and Baucus want to put into the bill. Harkin and Grassley have spoken publicly about disputes over conservation tax cred-its and the permanent disaster pro-gram, but a lobbyist said that Grassley would like to keep a long list of energy, rural development and conservation tax measures that are in the Senate-passed bill. Peter-son said March 6 that the House did not expect the farm bill to be a tax bill.

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