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Conner is downplaying the V word in the farm bill debate

Political pundits often say nasty things about the “inside the Beltway” mentality, i.e., someone has been “inside the Beltway” for so long they've lost touch with the real America.

Sometimes, that Beltway experience can be a welcome addition, however. Take Chuck Conner, the deputy secretary of agriculture who was named acting secretary after Mike Johanns resigned to run for the Senate from Nebraska.

Conner arrived in Washington to work for Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., shortly after receiving a degree in agricultural economics from Purdue. Conner became staff director for the Senate Agriculture Committee and was special assistant to the president for agriculture trade and food assistance.

In contrast to Johanns, whose political experience was limited to serving as mayor of Lincoln, Neb., and then as governor of that state, Conner practically grew up in Washington.

When the House passed its version of the 2007 farm bill in late July, Johanns came out swinging, saying the bill fell far short of the administration's expectations and he would recommend a veto because it included a tax increase.

Conner seems to be trying to downplay the “V” word — for now. He was asked during a press briefing Oct. 18 about a possible veto recommendation for the Senate Agriculture Committee's version of the farm bill.

One reporter asked if the White House had indicated a dollar figure for the farm bill drafted by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin that would bring a veto. (Harkin was scheduled to present the farm bill to the committee during a mark-up session Oct. 24.)

Conner discussed the budget planning that went into the farm bill proposal Johanns submitted last January. “We felt that was more than adequate, and we will hold pretty firm to that,” he noted.

Another asked about a line the Senate Ag Committee farm bill process could cross that would draw a veto. “I'm not going to talk any more about a veto,” Conner said. “I've had — and former Secretary Johanns had — a great working relationship with Tom Harkin and the rest of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“We know them well, and we understand where they're coming from. I believe we can work with these committed people to develop a bill that the president is not only going to sign, but sign with a great deal of enthusiasm.”

Conner indicated the administration does have concerns about some of the Senate Ag Committee language on issues such as payment limits. “We don't know for sure what the Senate bill does on payment limits at this point,” he noted.

While the proposed committee bill seems to be leaning toward tighter limits, the administration wants to see “real reform, including ending payments to landowners who happen to live along Park Avenue in New York. Any bill that leaves the payments in place and underfunds these important priorities we've identified will be a bill that we will have some difficulty with.”

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