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Cochran's head start may produce dividends

Sometimes we forget there are residents of Mississippi who don't remember when Thad Cochran was not a member of the United States Senate.

Cochran was reminiscing about his arrival in the Senate — in 1978 — during a speech at the National Cotton Council's annual meeting in Washington. Cotton farmers, he said, were responsible for his “head start” in the Senate.

After his election, Frank Mitchener, a cotton producer and former Council president from Sumner, Miss., called and suggested that then-Sen. James O. Eastland resign and allow the governor to appoint Cochran to finish his term.

“That's something that might sound reasonable and easy to do, but it really wasn't,” said Cochran. “The governor had run for the Senate and he wasn't too keen on appointing me. If Senator Eastland resigned early, I think he told one of the cotton farmers that approached him, he might want to be in the Senate.”

Reason prevailed, and Cochran was sworn in as Sen. Eastland's replacement in the Governor's Mansion in Jackson Dec. 28, several days ahead of other new members of the Senate. “I didn't know, and nobody could tell back then, exactly what the ramifications would be, but the reality was that it enabled me to get on the Agriculture Committee,” he said. “It also enabled me to get on the Appropriations Committee as early as I did.”

His recent confirmation as chairman of the Appropriations Committee also was “a direct result of those early decisions made by my friends in Mississippi, some of whom had helped in my election and some of whom had helped try to elect others who were running that year.” Cochran's assumption of the Appropriations Committee chairmanship could also be coming at a fortunate time for farmers given off-the-record briefings on the budget proposals the president was scheduled to make Feb. 7.

The president was expected to ask Congress to reduce the payment limits on farm programs from the current $360,000 per person to $250,000. Direct payments would be cut by 5 percent and marketing loan rates by an unspecified amount. He would reduce federal crop insurance subsidies by $140 million to $3.6 billion

The proposals are part of a plan to slice farm programs by $5.7 billion over the next 10 years to help meet the president's goal of cutting the federal budget deficit in half. An administration official said 2006 savings would total $587 million.

Though not as severe as the $10 billion to $15 billion that was being bandied about earlier, the cuts would still hurt, particularly among larger farmers whose payments would be capped at $250,000.

Cochran said the Appropriations Committee would have its work cut out trying to reduce the budget deficit. But he also said he would work as “hard as I can to oppose any changes in farm bill payments to producers.”

Frank Mitchener's phone call 26 years ago may pay some big dividends for cotton and rice farmers this year.

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