Politics & Government

Farm bill negotiators near agreement

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers late Thursday came close to wrapping up a farm bill that offers record spending for fruits and vegetables while falling short of some demands for crop subsidy reform.

Capping a long and tumultuous ride, House and Senate negotiators effectively endorsed the farm bill that's expected to cost about $280 billion over five years. More than $1 billion will support the specialty crop producers who complain they've been ignored too long.

"I believe we have a package here," Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said early Thursday evening. "I'm hoping we can get through this and put this puppy to bed."

Negotiators were meeting several hours after the House and Senate approved a two-week extension Thursday. Congress now has through May 16 to finish the bill.

Congressional negotiators anticipated working into the night Thursday, though final approvals won't come until budget numbers are firmed up next week. Negotiators did complete, though, certain provisions including a new $986 million specialty crop chapter closely watched in states like Florida and California.

The specialty crop funding includes $499 million for a block grant program. The money will be distributed among all 50 states for help with marketing, promotion and food safety, among other efforts. In a separate research chapter, negotiators included $230 million for specialty crop research.

"They've made me happy on some things," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif.

Cardoza chairs the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee. Like other lawmakers with a big stake in the farm bill, he's been enduring a rough ride in recent weeks. As late as Thursday afternoon, he was fuming about how negotiations were being handled.

On Wednesday night and Thursday morning, for instance, California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer flexed her Senate muscles to temporarily block passage of the simple farm bill extension. Boxer finally lifted her hold once she fended off unwanted changes in conservation and wetlands reserve funding.

"We are now making some progress," said Boxer's spokeswoman, Natalie Ravitz.

Myriad other policies have appeared to remain fluid throughout the negotiations. House plans to charge dairy importers a fee to cover U.S. dairy promotions suddenly disappeared one day. After some lawmakers kicked up a fuss, the new fees returned.

Still other provisions keep getting more complicated. In particular, negotiators are concocting Rube Goldberg-type systems ostensibly designed to reduce subsidies received by wealthy farmers. Bush originally sought an income limit of $200,000, which Congress considers far too low.

"It changes by the hour," Cardoza said of the overall negotiations. Cardoza is one of 60 congressional negotiators appointed to reconcile two sprawling and distinct farm bills approved by the House in July and the Senate in December.

The House and Senate conference committee met for the first time April 10, and then quickly dropped from sight. During the intervening three weeks, follow-up meetings were scheduled and then abruptly canceled. Several committee chairmen and congressional leaders handled most of the heavy lifting in private meetings.

Last Friday, with some fanfare, the key negotiators trumpeted an agreement on important issues. They established a new permanent disaster relief program, costing roughly $3.75 billion over five years, and they set new funding for conservation and food aid.

By the weekend, though, negotiators were stumbling over further details. The extension approved by voice vote Thursday, the sixth so far, keeps current farm policies in place while lawmakers resolve their differences and staff write the language that will easily exceed 1,000 pages when all is said and done.

"This horse has been beaten enough," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the senior GOP member of the Senate agriculture committee.

Chambliss met privately with President Bush on Thursday, in an effort to soften White House skepticism about the bill.