By Mark Tarallo

Bridge News

SALT LAKE CITY (B)--Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-TX and the ranking minority member of the House Agriculture Committee, will announce within a few weeks a proposed farm budget spending budget for fiscal 2001 assembled by the "Blue Dog" moderate Democrats on the committee, an aide to Stenholm said Feb. 26.

Anne Simmons, a senior farm aide to Stenholm, briefly discussed the "Blue Dog" budget proposal at a session on U.S. farm policy during the National Farmers Union annual convention, which is being held here Feb. 25 to 28.

According to Simmons, the budget proposal will probably include additional farm aid to help producers still struggling from low commodity prices, funding for rural economic development and possibly a trade initiative that would target assistance to smaller U.S. exporters.

It is still uncertain how much farm aid the proposal would contain and through what means the aid would be distributed, she added. And those two questions, the other aides at the session said, will be the focus of this year's farm policy debate on Capitol Hill.

The Clinton administration has proposed allocating about $11.5 billion in farm aid over the next two fiscal years to assist U.S. farmers still struggling from low commodity prices. The administration's proposal tries to target farm aid distribution by using a "countercyclical" approach, which guarantees an income

floor when farm income decreases.

But the countercyclical proposal does not seem to have broad support among the Blue Dogs, so an alternative will probably be suggested, Simmons said.

In addition, Mark Halverson, a senior aide to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-IA and the ranking Democrat on the Senate farm committee, said Harkin thought President Bill Clinton should have proposed more money for farm aid.

Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-MN, echoed this sentiment after delivering a speech to the convention Feb. 26.

"It is not a lot, it is too little, and it's getting to be too late," Wellstone told reporters after his speech.

At the freewheeling policy session, Simmons, Halverson and other aides to the House and Senate agriculture committees summarized the status of the farm-related legislation that Congress is considering this year. Topics discussed included the following:

--Prospects for approval of a bill that would expand the U.S. crop insurance system look good, said Keith Luse, a senior aide to Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-IN.

a floor vote once the bill gets out of committee, Luse said.

However, it is unclear what the legislation will look like at this point, he added. One possibility is that it will be a "choice" bill that will give farmers several insurance plans to choose from and thus incorporate both Democratic and Republican proposals.

--The Clinton administration's proposal to expand USDA's Conservation Reserve program to 40 million acres runs the risk of losing support because demand for the program seems to be decreasing, Simmons said.

The CRP pays farmers to idle land for environmental conservation reasons. In its fiscal 2001 budget proposal, the Clinton administration proposed lifting the enrollment ceiling on the program to 40.0 million acres from the current 36.4 million.

However, during the last sign-up period, offers from farmers to put land into the program were relatively light, and total acreage offered was below expectations. Given this, it is possible that the push to increase the enrollment ceiling may cease, Simmons said.

the House and Senate that would mandate labeling of genetically modified foods are expected to attract more attention, the aides said.

Although passage of the legislation this session may seem unlikely, the issue is likely to become more divisive in Congress.

"This debate will intensify," said Bryan Daniel, a senior aide to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest, R-TX.

--A few farmers attending the session voiced some criticisms on the subject of scheduled, and nonscheduled, farm policy hearings. The House Agriculture Committee is scheduled to hold 10 filed hearings across the country from March through May.

One farmer attending the session said it was "absolutely appalling" that Lugar has refused to hold similar hearings on the Senate side.

Another criticized Combest's committee for not holding any hearings in key western farm and ranching states, such as Wyoming, Montana, Colorado or New Mexico.

"You have got a big old hole right here" in the west, the farmer said of the hearing schedule.

According to Simmons, Stenholm may float some policy proposals at the hearings that try to reach a "middle ground" for the next farm bill--incorporating the planting flexibility of the current farm bill with a stronger safety net when prices fall.

--Aides traded accusations on why a sanctions reform measure that would exempt food from unilateral trade sanctions on several rogue nations, including Cuba, has not been approved by Congress.

"The problem is (opposition from) a few key Republican members on the House side," Valentine said. "That is the problem."

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