WASHINGTON (B)--Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Richard Lugar does not expect Congress to make major changes to existing U.S. farm policy programs this year, a senior aide to Lugar said.

However, Lugar does think a recent proposal for more government spending on existing farm conservation programs is "a step in the right direction," the aide said.

Keith Luce, a senior aide to Lugar, R-IN., spoke to Bridge News about some of the chairman's views on agricultural programs after delivering a speech at a American Farmland Trust press conference at the National Press Club.

The comments come as some members of Congress from farm states are advocating a wholesale rewrite of the 1996 Freedom-to-Farm Bill, which they say provides an inadequate safety net for farmers when commodity prices falter. Vice President Al Gore, in recent presidential primary campaigning in Iowa, also has adopted this stance, calling the legislation the "Freedom to Fail Bill."

But Lugar does not expect any major changes to existing farm programs this year, Luce said. However, Lugar's committee has planned hearings on some closely watched agricultural topics, including a Mar 1 hearing on farm trade with China.

In addition, the aide said Lugar was supportive of a recent bill introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-IA, that calls for more spending on farm conservation programs, which includes raising the enrollment ceiling on USDA's Conservation Reserve Program from 36.4 million acres to 40 million. The Clinton administration has said it will incorporate much of Harkin's proposal in its fiscal 2001 budget request, to be released next month.

While Lugar may act as a quelling force on attempts to rewrite the farm bill this year, some contend it is likely that Congress will wind up making another large allocation of emergency farm aid. The National Farmers Union is advocating an emergency assistance package of between $6 billion to $9 billion.

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