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House Ag Committee leaders urge realistic farm bill approach

The chairman and ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee are urging the diverse groups interested in the new farm bill to find a way to move the legislation forward and enact it into law.

Writing in an “open letter to the farm bill community,” Committee Chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota and ranking member Bob Goodlatte of Virginia said the time is growing short but they believe a new law can still be passed and signed by the president this spring.

“Based on conversations we've had with different groups in recent days, we understand there is a lot of concern, based largely on erroneous reports, about where we stand with the farm bill,” they said. “As a result, we thought it was important to explain as clearly as possible where we are in this process.”

Published reports said Peterson was prepared to offer a compromise proposal that would include tighter limits on farm program payments to try to get the Bush administration to drop its opposition to that portion of the legislation.

The open letter said committee members have been trying to arrive at a bill that can pass Congress with bipartisan support and be signed by the president. “After all, our common objective is to get a farm law, not just a bill voted out by Congress.”

Contrary to some reports, they said, they do not believe passing a bill just so the president can follow through on threats to veto the legislation would be good for farmers or for the country.

“We encourage everyone involved in this process to look realistically at what can be accomplished,” they said. “We know that this sense of realism will disappoint some people who wanted more out of the Farm bill. We wanted to do more too, but reality tells us that the possibilities are limited.”

Peterson and Goodlatte said farm bill managers must begin to make significant progress and outline a framework that is acceptable to the House and Senate and to the administration before the President's Day recess to pass a farm bill before the expiration of current law on March 15.

The letter was released after Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and other committee members said they thought they had seen some softening of the administration's hard line on such issues as payment limit reforms.

On two occasions in recent days, President Bush had said he would veto the farm bill in either the House- or Senate-passed form because they raised taxes and did not include payment limit reforms.

Asked if the administration was backing away from its proposal for a $200,000 hard cap on adjusted gross income for farm program eligibility, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer declined to address the issue of numbers at a press conference following his speech at the National Cotton Council's annual meeting in Memphis, Tenn.

Instead, he said the administration was conducting a review of what constituted a farming operation, an area increasingly cited by farm bill experts as “problematic” in dealing with the payment limit reform issue.

Sources said Peterson has asked the Congressional Budget Office and other analysts to “score” several proposals that could help break the logjam on the new farm bill that was supposed to take effect last Oct. 1. (Congress subsequently extended the 2002 farm bill, the current law, until March 15.

Besides the payment limit issue, some fundamental differences remain between the farm bills the House passed last July and the Senate in mid-December. The Senate bill contains permanent disaster program funding and spends more on nutrition, conservation and energy. The two bills also differ in how spending increases would be paid for.

Although Peterson has opposed efforts to impose more draconian limits on farm program payments, the farm bill voted out by the House Agriculture Committee in June reduced the adjusted gross income limit from the current law's $2.5 million to $1 million. The Senate bill would contain a “soft cap” on the AGI limit of $750,000 that would exempt persons who receive two-thirds of their income from farming.

Peterson told a reporter for Reuters he was no interested in mirroring the administration's $200,000 AGI cutoff. “We, obviously, can't go anywhere near as far as they want to go,” he said. He declined to give a new figure but said, “Some senators are not going to be happy.”

The Senate has appointed its members of the conference committee that will meet to resolve the differences between the House and Senate farm bills. House leaders were expected to do so by the middle of the week (of Feb. 11).

“We should give up our President's Day break (the following week). We should stay here and get this thing done,” said Peterson.

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