Senate, House negotiators begin final push for farm bill

WASHINGTON — House of Representatives and Senate negotiators on Thursday staged their first face-to-face bargaining session over a long-delayed farm bill, whose details are still being crafted in private.

Eight months after the House passed its farm bill version, and four months after the Senate acted, negotiators convened for 45 minutes to start the final, crucial phase of their work.

"I know many of you had doubts we would ever make it to this point," said Rep. Collin Peterson, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the House Agriculture Committee.

With lawmakers facing an April 18 deadline, the outlines of a final package are apparent. The bill will devote a record amount to fruits and vegetables, though less than what specialty-crop producers sought. Commodities such as cotton, rice and wheat will largely retain their current subsidies. Some payment limits will be tightened, though not nearly as much as some hoped.

"I think we are probably 80 percent of the way through the technical issues," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., one of the negotiators.

The remaining 20 percent, though, encompasses the toughest questions, including how to pay for new spending and how to craft a permanent disaster program favored by Midwestern lawmakers. Negotiators expect to meet again by next Tuesday to assess progress.

The House has named 49 negotiators, the Senate 11. The sprawling 60-member conference committee is larger than most; the 2002 farm bill, for instance, was written by 48 negotiators.

In theory, the conference committee is where the House's 1,154-page bill and accompanying report is reconciled with the Senate's 1,572-page bill and accompanying report.

In practice, the brief public meeting Thursday served essentially a symbolic purpose. A few senior lawmakers positioned themselves with introductory comments and then adjourned so that negotiations could occur at a more discreet, member-to-member and staff-to-staff level.

Some of the unresolved conflicts are specific to certain regions. Others cover wider turf.

"There are significant differences and disagreements, to be sure," said Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.

California lawmakers, for instance, are insisting that the new farm bill allow Agriculture Department environmental funds to be used to cut air pollution.

Unhappy asparagus producers in California and Michigan represent another unresolved conflict. The Senate bill includes $15 million for asparagus farmers hurt by international trade; the House bill doesn't.

All told, the farm bill has a five-year price tag of $280 billion. More than half of the money will pay for food stamps and other nutrition programs.

The package outline includes $1.35 billion designated for fruit and vegetable programs, which include block grants to states and specialty crop research. Several hundred million dollars in additional funding would pay for expanding an existing fruits-and-vegetables snack program to all 50 states. Currently, the healthy snack program is limited to 14 states, including North Carolina, Washington, Pennsylvania and Texas.

House members, hoping to avoid politically unpalatable tax increases, now propose to offset some $5.5 billion of the farm bill's costs through improved tax compliance on business revenue from credit card sales.