The Bush administration pledged Dec. 20 not to seek to cut farm spending when Congress returns to work next year on an overhaul of agriculture and nutrition programs, according to the Associated Press.
"The administration is committed to those budget amounts that the Congress has agreed to," Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman said.
This year's congressional budget agreement set aside $170 billion to spend on farm programs over the next decade, including $73.5 billion that was to come from a projected surplus.
Senate Democrats said that money is at risk because lawmakers were unable to agree on a bill this year to reauthorize subsidy programs.
Budget forecasts due to be released in January are expected to predict the government will run several years of deficits.
On Dec. 19, Democrats were unable for the third time in a week, to muster the 60 votes necessary to bring their farm bill to a final vote. President Bush opposed the bill, which would boost spending by nearly 80% over the next decade.
The administration is "ready and willing to support good policy," Veneman said in a telephone news conference.
Farm groups are worried that lawmakers will be less generous with agricultural subsidies after the new budget forecasts are released.
"The psychology will be altered," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-ND, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. "These needs that are a very important priority for big sections of the country will be pushed to the side. That is the risk."
The Senate deadlock pushes the issue into an election year in which control of the chamber is at stake.
"I'm disappointed that the Senate has chosen to go down such a partisan path," said Bruce Knight, a lobbyist for the National Corn Growers Association. "This is a lot more about control of the Senate than the best way to provide a farm bill."
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, said he would try to pass the Democratic bill again when lawmakers return in late January from their holiday recess.
Several farm-state senators are up for re-election in 2002, including the Agriculture Committee chairman, Tom Harkin, D-IA; Arkansas Republican Tim Hutchinson; Democrat Tim Johnson of South Dakota; and Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone.
"It's a setback," Harkin said of the Senate stalemate.
Republicans contend there remains plenty of time and money available to write a farm bill next year. Existing programs expire in the fall. The Democratic bill raises crop subsidies so high that it would encourage excess production and drive down commodity prices, in the view of the Bush administration.
"What we have done today is give ourselves a second chance," said Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
The Democratic bill would reauthorize farm programs through 2006. Most of the money would continue to go to grain, cotton and soybean farms, but the bill offers new subsidies for a variety of additional commodities, including milk, honey and lentils. It also would double spending on conservation.
The administration criticized both that bill and another one passed by the GOP-controlled House in October and urged Congress to delay finishing work on them until 2002. Both bills risk breaking U.S. trade commitments and provide too much money to big farms that least need the assistance, the administration said.
Before the Dec. 18 vote, Democratic leaders sidestepped a battle over the size of subsidies that individual farmers could receive by blocking an amendment by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-IA, to tighten payment limits.
The Democratic bill would allow farmers to continue to receive virtually unlimited amounts of crop subsidies, a concession designed to win votes of southern Democrats. Grassley wants to set a limit of $150,000 per farmer.
Advocates of payment limits say that big subsidies drive up land values and rents, which makes it more difficult for small and medium-size farms to compete with larger operations. Opponents of such caps say they penalize big, low-cost farmers.