By Jerry Hagstrom

DTN Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (DTN)--An extraordinary April 15 evening meeting of key conferees in the Capitol office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, indicated talks on the farm bill conference report had entered a very serious, possibly final stage.

I was the only reporter hanging out in the hallway during the April 15 evening meeting. Here is a personal account of this glimpse into policy-making at the highest level.

Sources had told me earlier in the day that the conferees would meet at 5 p.m., but it ended up being delayed and turned into two sessions. Democratic senators and staff came to Daschle's office at 6:30 p.m., and House conferees and Republican senators were invited to come at 7:15 p.m.

The meeting was held in S224, the same small conference room Daschle uses to meet with the press in those sessions that are broadcast on C-SPAN. The room seats about 12 people around a table similar to a large dining room table. There also are side chairs around the room for perhaps another six people. The room is decorated with paintings from South Dakota and photographs of Daschle and his family.

Daschle hosted the farm bill meeting, but went "back and forth" to deal with his other responsibilities, an aide said. The Democratic senators who attended the meeting were Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-IA; Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-ND; and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-VT, whose opinion on dairy legislation is considered crucial to the bill's final passage.

About 7:15 p.m., Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-MS; House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest, R-TX; and House Agriculture Committee ranking member Charles Stenholm, D-TX, arrived. Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Richard Lugar, R-IN, did not attend, but was represented by his staff director Keith Luse. A Lugar aide said he had a conflict due to the rescheduling of the meeting to a later hour.

Combest did not wear a tie--a signal perhaps that he was prepared to work hard. Or a signal that he would not be intimidated by being invited to the Senate majority leader's office.

The meeting was one of the smallest imaginable. Members allowed only their highest aides to attend the meeting. Other staffers, normally regarded as power players, waited in the hallway, in case their expertise was needed.

Sitting at the far end of the darkened hallway were Bush Administration officials waiting for invitation to join the meeting, an invitation that never came, according to Capitol Hill sources present all evening. One staffer said the House members and senators of both parties are still angry with the Bush Administration for opposing the House and Senate farm bills, then giving the House bill a half-hearted endorsement, because the White House disliked the Senate bill more, and even proving unwilling to make clear statements on certain controversial parts of the bill, such as the proposal on payment limitations.

About 8:20 p.m., Cochran, Combest, Stenholm, Luse and Senate Republican and House Republican and Democratic staffers emerged. Combest and Stenholm and their staffs rushed past. Cochran, a Southern gentleman of the old school, told me he believed "progress had been made," but said the real opinion was up to the House members, who had gone back to their offices to evaluate what offers they had received from the Senate.

Conrad told me that the senators had ordered dinner, that he expected "a long night" and that they expected the House members to return.

While they waited for their food, Leahy emerged from the room and talked with Chuck Conner, the top White House agriculture adviser. That may seem surprising, since President Bush's politics seem far apart from the liberal Leahy. But Leahy works more closely than any other Democratic senator with Lugar, and Conner used to be Lugar's staff director on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Senate sources confirmed early April 16 that the House members did return for further negotiations and that the meeting broke up about 11:30 p.m.

There have been reports that decisions were made on loan rates, but no one involved in the meeting was willing to tell me what decisions were made.

What is the meaning of a meeting like this?

On some level, it restores faith in democracy--or at least the personal involvement of elected officials. Many people--perhaps farmers, in particular--fear that members of Congress leave policy-making up to their staffs, but that is not true. And those who believe lobbyists have all the power in Washington should know that not a single lobbyist was present, not even lurking in the hallway. The final decisions on this farm bill will be made by senators and House members, and they can be judged or whether it succeeds or fails.

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