U.S. senators begin debating farm bill Monday

ST. PAUL -- U.S. senators are set to debate how much federal money farmers and ranchers will receive during the next five years. Starting Monday, senators from Minnesota, North Dakota and adjoining states will be at the center of a pivotal federa...

ST. PAUL -- U.S. senators are set to debate how much federal money farmers and ranchers will receive during the next five years.

Starting Monday, senators from Minnesota, North Dakota and adjoining states will be at the center of a pivotal federal farm policy debate. Fights over many issues in the $280 billion agriculture legislation likely will prompt more than a week of debate.

Several key issues were unresolved late last month when the Senate agriculture committee approved the bill following intense behind-the-scenes negotiations involving lawmakers, farm groups and others. The broad legislation includes crop and livestock subsidies, nutrition programs such as food stamps, rural development funds, renewable energy projects and conservation initiatives.

Among the most controversial parts of the proposal will be whether to create a permanent farm disaster relief fund, sought particularly by North Dakota and Minnesota lawmakers and opposed by others who view it as wasteful spending. One-time federal assistance has been sought repeatedly by farmers who suffered crop or livestock damage in droughts, flooding and other natural disasters.

"That's a lot better way to do business than what we've been doing," U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said.


A disaster relief plan was developed outside the agriculture committee in part because that panel struggled to increase funding for existing farm programs while adding spending in other areas, such as on conservation programs, renewable energy initiatives and rural development. Also, Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa, the Senate agriculture committee chairman, said he has "never been a big fan" of a permanent disaster relief fund.

A new requirement that farmers who seek disaster relief have crop insurance may attract some skeptics, including Harkin, who said "that could be very helpful," but the measure still will be controversial.

"That's clearly going to be a hot issue," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who also said he is concerned sugar provisions important to northwestern Minnesota could be targeted.

The $5.1 billion permanent disaster aid proposal already has been supported by three committees

"That forms a pretty strong base for votes on the floor, but we know there are those that would like to raid the cookie jar and we know that there is hostility to this disaster program," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who is co-sponsoring the provision funded with agriculture tariffs.

The House approved its farm bill this summer and is awaiting Senate passage so negotiators can work on a compromise version to send to President Bush, who threatened to veto the House measure because of tax issues and not enough changes to federal farm payments.

Farm-state senators are being pressured to reform controversial agriculture policies. Harkin said he tried to placate some of those demands by presenting an alternative payment program.

Senators looking to add more spending to nutrition programs as well as other areas of the bill may try to place tighter limits on how much the federal government offers in subsidy payments to crop farmers. Even senators who backed the bill in committee said tighter limits should be placed on those payments.


A critical debate involves a proposal co-authored by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., to place new restrictions on who can receive farm payments and how much can be paid out in a year. Only people who are "actively involved in the farm operation" could receive payment under the bill.

"We have a farm program to try to help family farmers through tough times," Dorgan said. "That's what it should be about."

Congress is moving "thoughtfully" away from direct crop payments and some loan programs, Coleman said, but some proposals to further change commodity policies are problematic.

"I think it would have a devastating impact on the family farmers in Minnesota who depend on having a safety net because they know ... commodity prices aren't always going to be high," he said.

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, the Detroit Lakes Democrat who led the House farm bill effort, said it still is possible to get compromise legislation through Congress before the end of the year. He mostly has avoided commenting on the Senate's work, but is involved in negotiations and consulted with Klobuchar when senators put their bill together.

Getting a bill signed next month would help agricultural producers who need certainty about farm program rules as they prepare for the 2008 crop year, South Dakota Sen. John Thune said.

Thune is among Republicans who backs the Democrat-led bill. He said supporters will have to fend off attempts to divert funds from commodity programs to other areas of the bill. He predicted a big debate over payment limits.

"I hope we can move it through the Senate ... and keep it from unraveling on the floor," Thune said.


Barring major changes during the upcoming floor debate, the Senate and House bills are reconcilable, Peterson said. However, congressional leaders probably will have to settle differences over how the bills are funded.

As with any major policy debate, trade-offs have been made in the farm bill. Senators withheld some amendments in committee to assure the bill reached the floor. The farm bill debate is shaped more by regional farming interests than by party politics.

Asked whether he believes the Senate must accept Harkin's alternative farmer payment program if permanent disaster aid is to survive, Conrad laughed.

"You've got to love this town, don't you?" he said from Capitol Hill. "I think the signal he's sending is exactly that."

Conrad downplayed the influence he and other lawmakers from the region have in the Senate debate. States around the country have a stake in the permanent disaster relief discussion, and crop subsidy payments affect farmers around the nation.

However, "nobody's got more at stake than our part of the country, and so it's not surprising that we're especially active," Conrad added.

Agriculture programs only account for a portion of farm bill spending, with around two-thirds directed to nutrition programs, such as food stamps.

While there could be attempts to steer more money toward nutrition in the upcoming debate, the Senate's bill looks good to a large organization serving the needy in the Upper Midwest.


The House and Senate both provide more than $1 billion emergency for food for the needy, said Newell Searle, a vice president for Second Harvest Heartland, a food bank serving a large chunk of Minnesota. Searle said the group would like to see senators set the funding to rise with inflation.

"There's still stuff in play here," Searle said. "I think we're cautiously optimistic that it's looking quite good."

The Senate will boost nutrition spending, and Coleman said he will attempt to increase money in the program benefiting food banks and the needy.

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