Congress' battle lines take shape

For a few days in January, it might have seemed to the casual observer that the Republican Party's worst nightmare had come true.

There was Tom Daschle, D-S.D., serving as majority leader of the Senate. Democrats chaired committees conducting hearings on President-elect George W. Bush's cabinet nominees.

The leadership switch, which lasted only until Vice President Al Gore left office, thus returning the balance of power to the GOP, gave Republicans a taste of what life might be like had the 2000 elections gone differently.

“Everyone is watching each member's health very closely,” said Mark Keenum, chief of staff for Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., referring to the effect the loss of even one seat could have on Republican control of the Senate. “Anyone who starts sneezing or coughing gets a full checkup.”

Speaking at the Mississippi Farm Bureau's Winter Commodity Conference in Jackson, Keenum said the House of Representatives is almost split along the same lines: 221 Republican members, 212 Democrats and two independents. “It takes 218 votes to pass bills in the House, so the loss of three votes means a great deal to them.”

The makeup of the two chambers will be extremely important in the weeks ahead as Congress tries to deal with budget issues and how to help farmers deal with low commodity prices and high input costs.

Until a short time ago, Congress was expecting to work on legislation addressing a projected budget surplus of $4.6 trillion over the next 10 years. But, the Congressional Budget Office or CBO has issued a revised projection of $5.6 trillion. Of that $2.5 trillion is earmarked for Social Security, leaving a $3.1 trillion net surplus.

“We have a brand new Congress and a new administration, and all the talk in Washington is about what to do with all this money,” he said. “Some in Congress are salivating at the thought of it.”

Spending ideas

Keenum said some are coming up with big ideas for spending the surplus. “There is a big faction that says ‘we have this $6 trillion debt, why not take some of the surplus and start paying off the debt,’” he said. “President Bush has proposed a $1.6 trillion tax cut, which is about one-half of the amount left after Social Security.

“I think most would agree that these kinds of surpluses indicate the American public is being over-taxed.”

Whoever maintains control, “It is very likely this Congress will set farm policy for the next 10 years,” Keenum notes.

Some congressional leaders had discussed passing a new farm bill in 2001 — a year before expiration of the 1996 law - but Keenum said some of the pressure for new legislation appears to be fading.

Rather than pushing for a new law, farm-state leaders will be working with the budget committees of both Houses to obtain increased spending authority for farm programs.

“Some analysts says that even without an emergency, it could take $14.5 billion to cover 2001 farm program costs — supplemental AMTA payments, loan deficiency payments, conservation payments,” he said. “The last three years Congress has provided between $22 billion and $28 billion annually for farmers or an average of $25 billion per year.”

Keenum said farm-state leaders have been educating budget committee members on low price supports. “This year, we will also have to stress high input costs and the need for more funds to offset them.”

Another reason for patience in writing a new farm bill, he said, is that many observers think farmers generally fare better in election years when it comes to funding farm programs.

“The 2002 election is shaping up to be a very important election,” he said. “Democrats think they have a very good chance of winning control of one or both Houses of Congress. In fact, it could be said the campaign has already started for 2002.”

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