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House-Senate conferees achieve breakthrough on farm bill

House and Senate negotiators, defying a White House demand they pass a one-year extension of the farm bill, appear to have reached agreement on a spending framework for a new five-year farm law.

Late Friday afternoon (April 25), Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and the farm bill conference committee, announced that a “core farm bill utilizing the $10 billion above baseline” criteria had been worked out among key farm bill negotiators.

Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said he planned to present details of “the balanced agreement” to members of the full House and Senate farm bill conference committee at a meeting scheduled for Tuesday morning (April 29).

Although details were sketchy, sources said the agreement includes $3.85 billion for a permanent agricultural disaster program; an additional $861 million for spending on nutrition programs; $4 billion for conservation programs, including $1.1 billion for the Conservation Stewardship Program; and $1.35 billion for specialty crops.

Offsets would come mostly through extending customs user fees, which under congressional budget rules do not count as taxes. President Bush has repeatedly said he would veto any bill that contained increased taxes.

Other funds would come from generous scoring of the new average crop revenue or ACRE counter-cyclical revenue program. Sources said the agreement includes a $400-million cut in direct payments, but much of that would be accomplished by requiring farmers who enroll in ACRE to give up a portion of their direct payment.

“Today the principal farm bill negotiators came together on a bipartisan level to reach a tentative agreement on the agriculture policy that will make the final farm bill a strong one,” Harkin said in a statement released by the Senate Agriculture Committee staff.

While the tentative agreement maintains strong farm income security, Harkin said it would also “solidify the future of the Conservation Security Program, which has been renamed the Conservation Stewardship Program, returning it to the program it was intended to be when first enacted in the 2002 farm bill.”

The new farm bill invests in renewable energy and will provide grants and loans to help advance the development of cellulosic biofuels. It also will provide more fresh fruits and vegetables in elementary schools and stronger assistance to low-income Americans through federal nutrition programs.

A spokesman for the White House declined comment on Harkin's announcement — saying administration officials had not yet had time to properly review the agreement worked out by House and Senate negotiators.

A few days earlier, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer had said he was not optimistic Congress could pass a new farm bill in 2008 because “the House and Senate can't agree on funding, can't agree on the method of funding and can't agree on reforms.”

Secretary Schafer's negative assessment seemed to be borne out when the House-Senate farm bill conference committee failed to conduct any meetings in the two or three days before Sen. Harkin's announcement.

Sources said committee members were simply too busy hammering out the details of the agreement to schedule any meetings.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a key farm bill negotiator, called the agreement “the best farm bill we've ever had for North Dakota.

“It's completely paid for, without tax increases. It deserves the support of the entire Congress and certainly the support of the president.”

Farm groups were also throwing their support behind the budget framework, including the National Corn Growers Association, which applauded congressional negotiators for achieving a funding agreement.

“NCGA realizes this has been a difficult process for members of Congress, and we thank them for their hard work,” said NCGA President Ron Litterer of Greene, Iowa.

“As a producer, I understand that recent market conditions highlight the need for a viable revenue option - one that addresses the increasing levels of risk farmers are facing today. We strongly believe this final package needs to include such an option.”

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