Farm bill extension grabs spotlight

Tuesday's farm bill conference had to be particularly unpleasant for Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. During an April 17 conference, the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman threatened he'd begin calling votes at the next meeting. The House made sure that didn't happen.

The senate “proffered (an offer) to the House last Thursday,” said Harkin. “We were looking forward to a response from the House … That if they brought something back, we'd start to vote.

“I still want to do that. But without an offer there's not much to be held in the way of voting. But at some point, we're going to start voting on some issues around here.”

Collin Peterson, House Agriculture Committee chairman, later said the House was “still perusing” the Senate's offer.

Congress' inconsistent work schedule — the House isn't in session on Friday — is also working against the new bill. Last week, President Bush reluctantly signed a short-term extension of current law that expires Friday (April 25).

“So it looks like we'll have to have another extension (of current law),” said Harkin. “But I'm not certain what will happen (if Congress asks for one). I have received no information from the White House. They've said before they wouldn't” allow another extension.

Harkin was then handed, and read, a “hot off the press” statement from President Bush:

“I'm disappointed that Congress has failed to put forward a good farm bill leaving farmers and ranchers in a state of confusion and uncertainty as to how they'll be affected by federal policies.

“The farm bill proposal currently being discussed by conferees would fail several important tests I've set forth. With record farm income, now is not the time for Congress to ask other sectors of the economy to pay higher taxes in order to increase the size of government. The proposal would increase spending by at least $16 billion — masked, in part, by budgetary gimmicks and funded, in part, by additional tax revenues.

“These tax revenue provisions are unacceptable, including tax compliance initiatives being considered by the House and Senate conference committee. It's important that the proposal also lacks the important reforms I've repeatedly called for.

“After last week's short-term extension of the farm bill, Congress now has only four days to provide certainty to America's farmers and ranchers. Despite the passage of more than a year since my administration unveiled a responsible and forward-looking farm bill proposal, there are no signs the conference committee will reach an acceptable farm bill by Friday.

“I therefore call on Congress to provide agricultural producers with the certainty to make sound business and planting decisions about this year's crop by extending current law for at least one year.”

Bush's statement doesn't categorically rule out another short-term extension, Harkin pointed out. “He's calling on us to extend it for one year. I know there are some who feel that might be the best thing to do — maybe that's where we'll end up…

“I think the agriculture portion (of the farm bill) is basically done. There are some little things that might take some debate. But we're basically done.”

Peterson said the House “is still trying to come to a resolution amongst ourselves in terms of $10 billion in offsets. We've got more work to do.”

One thing Peterson was sure of: a one-year extension “is a bad idea and isn't an acceptable outcome. Frankly, this kind of stuff out of the White House isn't helpful. I guess they can say whatever they want. But for those of us who want to get a farm bill done, this isn't helpful.”

Agreeing with Peterson was Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “A one- or two-year extension — whatever is being floated around — isn't the way to go. As long as the dialogue is open, the opportunity is there to get together. “This has been very frustrating, I know, for both (the House and Senate) … Our farmers and ranchers are beginning to not just make plans but beginning to plant. The pressure is on us. If we can show significant progress in the next 24 hours, I think there may be an opportunity to look the President in the eye and say ‘Give us one more chance.’”

Still, a one-year extension “is a reality we face,” said Montana Sen. Max Baucus, Senate Finance Committee chairman. “Another, of course, would be to do something within the jurisdiction of the agriculture committees. This is still being held up by the fact people are asked to make some tough decisions about how to pay for things outside their jurisdiction.”

After discussions on several titles, the meeting adjourned after lasting just under an hour. The conferees are expected to meet again late Wednesday afternoon.

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