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Senate and House farm bill leaders looking for a stopper

Where's Tom Daschle when you need him? The last time Congress wrote a farm bill, Daschle, or so the story goes, called agriculture committee leaders in at one point and told them to pass a farm bill. Period. End of story.

House and Senate conference committee members went back to work, compromised on some tough issues, voted out a conference report that was passed by both Houses and signed by President Bush on May 13, 2002.

By the time Daschle, the then-Senate majority leader, took action, House and Senate conferees had been meeting from January until April — longer than they've been negotiating the current bill. The conference committee for this farm bill has yet to meet.

That's not the only difference. In 2002, the Bush administration played the role of observer, providing deputy undersecretaries to answer questions about how USDA might implement provisions of the bill.

Then-Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman made general statements about administration policy on the farm bill but did travel around the country telling groups how the president would veto the farm bill if it (1) contained tax increases or (2) did not include reforms such as a lower adjusted gross income ceiling on payments.

Both Secretary Ed Schafer and Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner, have missed few opportunities to get out and claim the House and Senate farm bills raise taxes and “do not target support to producers who need it the most.”

In response, House and Senate agriculture leaders claim the bills are more about closing tax loopholes and requiring royalty payments on offshore oil wells. And they note they are paying for the farm bill as they go rather than simply increasing spending as the administration has done with the economic stimulus package.

The House and Senate conference committee could reconcile the two versions of the farm bill within a matter of days — once House leaders actually name the House members. Instead, committee leaders have spent most of the last three months trying to compromise with the White House.

Reps. Collin Peterson and Bob Goodlatte, the chairman and ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, and Sens. Tom Harkin and Saxby Chambliss, chairman and ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, reportedly have agreed on a spending figure of $10 billion over the baseline projected for the farm bill.

But that has caused other committee members such as Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Budget Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., to call the compromise “dead on arrival” because other spending priorities will not leave the $5.5 billion they need for their permanent disaster program.

For now, Congress is working on a new deadline of April 19 to replace or extend the current law. After that, the fall elections will begin to prove more distracting. If farmers are to have a new law in 2008, it's time for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to step up and do a “Tom Daschle.”

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