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Senators fire up farm bill


Proposal based on plan submitted to deficit commission


By JERRY HAGSTROM


For the Capital Press


WASHINGTON -- The Senate Agriculture Committee will try to finalize an agreement on a new farm bill within weeks.


The prospects for passing the bill in this election year and budgetary climate have appeared dim. But in recent weeks agricultural leaders in Congress and farm group leaders have said they want to do everything in their power to push the bill through Congress and send it to President Barack Obama this year.


Their argument is that farmers need certainty and that writing it next year will not be any easier.


Both Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., have said in recent weeks they are determined to get a bill through the committee this spring. The congressional spring break in April and the Memorial Day recess in late May have both been mentioned as deadlines, but Stabenow and Roberts have both said they want to finish the bill earlier rather than later.


Stabenow and Roberts want to take the bill to the Senate floor, although Roberts has also mentioned the possibility of attaching the bill to another piece of legislation.


The House presents a bigger challenge than the Senate because tea party Republicans want deep cuts in all spending. In the farm bill, they have focused on the food stamp program, which has increased enrollment during the recession.


The House has trouble passing all legislation, but House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., has said he thinks farmers would fare better by sending a bill to a sitting president than to either a re-elected president or a new president.


The bill is expected to be based on the draft that the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate agriculture committees sent to the failed Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction in December.


That draft proposal would address deficit concerns by cutting farm program spending by $23 billion over 10 years, but it would continue the programs that specialty crop producers won in the 2008 Farm Bill, merge conservation programs and reduce the size of the land-idling Conservation Reserve Program from 32 million to 26 million acres. It would eliminate the direct payments that crop farmers have gotten whether prices are high or low but continue the crop insurance program and create several new programs for commodity producers.


While the specialty crop and conservation sections appear popular, issues of conservation compliance, the structure of the commodity programs and the level of spending on food stamps have not been resolved.


The Environmental Working Group, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the National Farmers Union have said that as direct payments phase out farmers should be required to follow certain conservation guidelines in order to qualify for subsidized crop insurance.


But the American Farm Bureau Federation and commodity groups oppose that link, saying it would be difficult to manage because crop insurance is delivered by private sector agents, not the government.


Congress has found it impossible to write a single farm program to replace the direct payments. Instead the draft contained a proposal to give most crop farmers a choice between a program that would pay benefits that crop insurance does not cover, up to 90 percent of a crop's value or allow farmers to base a program on higher target prices to trigger benefits. Cotton would get a separate program.


The Farm Bureau said it feared the higher target prices would lead farmers to plant for the program rather than the market and made its own proposal for payments in case of catastrophic losses. But last week the Farm Bureau board said it would consider alternatives.



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