House lawmakers propose new version of farm bill
WASHINGTON (AP)--House lawmakers are proposing a new version of a wide-ranging farm bill in an attempt to appease the White House, which had contended that the legislation was full of wasteful spending.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-MN, and Virginia Rep. Robert Goodlatte, the top Republican on the committee, are proposing stricter limits on subsidies paid to wealthy farmers and slashing extra spending for farm programs.
The administration signaled its support for the draft Feb. 13, as two top officials said Peterson's proposal includes some of the changes sought by President Bush. He has threatened to veto the bills passed by both chambers last year.
"We believe this offer represents a package that is moving in a direction of a bill that the President would sign," Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer and Deputy Secretary Charles Conner said in a joint statement.
However, Democratic Sens. Max Baucus of Montana and Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, all members of the Agriculture Committee, criticized Peterson's draft, saying it cuts important programs.
"Senators made it very clear that proposal isn't going to fly," said Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which also has jurisdiction over the bill.
One of the programs not funded in the draft was a $5 billion fund created by Baucus to subsidize farmers who have lost crops due to weather-related disasters. Peterson's proposal would also reduce spending on federal nutrition programs and cut back extra subsidies set aside for certain crops.
Peterson and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Agriculture Committee, met with Schafer, Conner and White House budget chief Jim Nussle Feb. 13. Baucus and Conrad, both of whom attended the meeting, said the group agreed to meet again Feb. 14.
"It was a tough meeting," Conrad said afterward.
Peterson said his draft isn't a final offer but an example of how Congress can work to find a bill that Bush won't veto.
The House passed its version of the five-year, $286 billion bill in July, and the Senate passed its bill in December. Peterson's new version would extend the legislation to 10 years and would spend around $611 billion, adhering to government estimates of what farm programs will cost over that period.
The Bush administration has objected to spending beyond that government "baseline." Peterson's draft would reduce the extra spending for farm programs to $6 billion over the 10 years, roughly half what would have been spent in the bills passed by the House and Senate last year.
"This bill is fiscally conservative," Peterson said.
Both Harkin and Peterson have threatened that if the negotiations come to a stalemate, Congress might bypass an extension of current law--it expires March 15--and allow farm policy to revert to permanent statutes last updated in 1949.
That could cause major problems for the dairy and soybean industries, among others, and would eliminate newer programs designed to protect environmentally sensitive land and extra dollars for the fruit and vegetable industries.