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Farm bill loan rate deal unraveling?

After another day of on-again, off-again publicly announced meetings of the House-Senate conference committee, speculation centered on the possibility that Senate leaders may have decided they gave too much ground on the loan rate issue.

Reports coming out of the closed door sessions between a handful of key conference members said that an agreement to put the corn loan rate at $1.97 and the soybean loan rate at $5.04 per bushel appeared to be unraveling with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle instead insisting on rates of $2.00 and $5.07.

Some farm bill observers had been concerned that Daschle, who took the unusual step of putting himself on the conference committee in March, had made commitments to higher loan rates that would be difficult to break. The Daschle bill, as the Senate farm bill is sometimes called, sets the corn loan rate at $2.08 and the soybean rate at $5.20.

A meeting of key conference committee members in Daschle’s office Monday night was thought to be a sign that Daschle had finally become engaged in the negotiations and that an agreement would be announced on Tuesday.

“It’s going to take Sen. Daschle becoming involved on a personal level before we get any serious movement on the farm bill,” said one source. “He and Rep. Combest will have to sit down and decide where they can compromise.”

The conference committee was scheduled to hold its first public meeting since Thursday at 1 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday. That meeting was postponed until 4 p.m., postponed again until 6 p.m. and then rescheduled for 10 a.m. tomorrow.

Congressional sources had said they were expecting a press conference in which a series of agreements would be announced that would clear the way for final approval of a conference report.

But other reports said the conference leaders still had major differences on the Grassley-Dorgan payment limit amendment, packer ownership of livestock and Sen. Tom Harkin’s Conservation Security Program.

Whether those differences, which for payment limits seem to involve whether generic commodity certificates will remain in the law, can be resolved was a major question mark for the negotiations.

Senate Democrats have argued during the public sessions of the conference committee that higher loan rates would provide the best means for putting more money into the hands of farmers. But Reps. Larry Combest, the conference committee chairman, from Texas and Frank Lucas of Oklahoma have said that unstable weather conditions in the Plains states make it difficult to predict whether farmers can harvest a crop and receive the loan rate.

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