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COLUMN: Energy debate vintage Grassley

Did you ever have the feeling you'd like to grab someone by the lapels and shake them? Judging from their phone calls and letters on the payment limit issue, many Sun Belt farmers would like to do that with Sen. Charles Grassley.

Despite numerous attempts to persuade him to change his mind, the Iowa senator continues to say he will offer up payment limit legislation that many believe could cripple large numbers of row crop farming operations in the North and the South.

A few days ago, Grassley said he wanted to amend the fiscal 2004 agricultural appropriations bill to limit the amount of money farmers could receive through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to $300,000.

Some saw the move as a backdoor attempt to split farm organizations that have been united in their efforts to preserve the 2002 farm bill. If conservation payments were to be cut for cattle and hog producers, why should row crop farmers be spared similar treatment?

In mid-October, Grassley told reporters he would be unable to introduce a payment limit amendment to the Senate version of the fiscal 2004 ag appropriations bill because he expected it to be combined with other spending measures in an omnibus bill that could not be amended.

But in the on-again, off-again maneuverings in the Senate, no one can be sure whether it will be asked to pass an omnibus bill or consider the bills separately.

Whatever the Senate leadership decides, Grassley has indicated he won't give up. "We probably won't get a vote this time, but I intend to continue these issues up until we pass meaningful reform," he said.

Fortunately for corn and soybean farmers, the senator has been showing similar tenacity in the energy bill conference committee where he has been toe to toe with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas over tax credits for ethanol and biodiesel-blended fuels.

Thomas and House members want to delay or reduce tax credits for such fuels while Grassley wants the credits fully funded in the energy bill. Without them, he says, the Senate will not pass an energy bill conference report.

Grassley has injected presidential politics into the debate. Referring to California's opposition to ethanol blends, the senator noted that the president has a better chance of carrying Iowa than California.

"Right now is a good time for the president to remember the word ethanol that he learned in Iowa," said Grassley, referring to Bush's education in the Iowa caucus vote in the 2000 presidential campaign.

At press time, Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly was attempting to help Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert find a way out of the energy bill impasse so the conference committee could send its report on to the two chambers.

While Sen. Grassley may be distracted just now, farm organization representatives have little doubt he won't switch back to payment limits if given the chance when the ag appropriations bill comes to the floor.

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