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Playing with fire on veto threat?

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson says he’s been having “frank” discussions with Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner regarding the 2008 farm bill.

Peterson and Conner reportedly have met five times since Christmas. That’s commendable, but farmers want more than frank words. They want a farm bill in time for putting in the 2008 crops.

The new law was the prime topic at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Nashville and at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting in New Orleans. AFBF President Bob Stallman sounded the call the nation’s largest farm organization will be making when a House-Senate conference committee convenes, possibly by the end of January.

As far as Farm Bureau is concerned, Stallman said, the nation’s farmers and ranchers have already compromised on the legislation passed by the House and Senate and “are not really interested in going any further.”

Although he did not mention any names, Stallman downplayed the claims the acting secretary has made in several speeches to farm and agribusiness groups since the Senate approved its farm bill in mid-December.

“I have talked to farmers, and they don’t care whether something is a budget gimmick, or closing a loophole or providing a tax credit,” Stallman said. “They don’t care about all the back and forth from Democrats and Republicans. What our members care about is: When are we going to know what the rules are so we can plan our planting operation?”

Conner’s also been beating the drums for new income eligibility limits for farm programs to prevent payments to “persons we have described as millionaires living on Park Avenue.” (Democrats note USDA could stop such payments administratively.)

Peterson, who indicated a willingness to meet with the White House to iron out such differences before the Senate voted, appears to be defending the farm bill’s payment limit reforms in his meetings with Conner.

He told reporters he believes Congress can restrict payments without damaging the interests of active farmers — as the administration’s proposals would do. He and Conner have discussed revamping USDA’s definition of a farm and harmonizing the income restrictions on commodity and conservation payments.

In a payment limit side note, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., answered criticism by the Center for Rural Affairs’ Chuck Hassebrook of Conrad’s vote against the Dorgan-Grassley amendment. Hassebrook claimed the failure of the amendment “delivered a lavish Christmas present to the nation’s wealthiest megafarms.”

“To clarify: this amendment would have saved $100 million a year in a bill that costs $57 billion, and it would have cost us the votes necessary to get the supermajority needed to pass the bill in the Senate,” said Conrad.

Another observer questioned the “political wisdom” of the White House’s continued push on payment limits. Displaying a map of “red and blue” states at the Beltwide, Texas A&M University policy analyst Joe Outlaw said, “I can tell you this map may look a lot different if the president vetoes this farm bill.”

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