House and Senate farm bill conferees finalized all but a handful of the most controversial issues early today amid fresh concern that President Bush will veto the bill. Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin, who chairs the conference, said Agriculture committee staffs and principal negotiators would work through the weekend to resolve outstanding issues with the White House, but that there would be limits to what Congress could do. Harkin added the conference would not convene again before Tuesday at 1 p.m. Bush is likely to sign a two-week extension of the 2002 farm bill through May 16 passed Thursday by the House and Senate. A one-week extension of the 2002 bill expires today.
Senate Agriculture ranking member Saxby Chambliss acknowledged in an interview after the conference ended early this morning that Vice President Cheney had called him Wednesday night and told him he had been "tasked to call you and tell you that the president is not going to sign your bill." Chambliss told Cheney he had then requested a meeting with the president, but had not received a response. But after a Thursday morning conversation with White House Chief of Staff Bolten, Chambliss said, he was invited to lunch, where he had "a good conversation with the president" and that "there's been somewhat of a change of the heart. The president is not committed to vetoing the bill." The Georgia Republican added: "There was a point when the president didn't think we could get a bill. Now the White House realizes they are going to get a bill." Regarding the specifics of the bill, Chambliss declined to go into detail as to what he discussed with Bush.
Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad shed more light, however, on potential White House concerns. He said late Thursday that Republicans told him the administration's top issues are restricting farmers' ownership in grain after they receive farm subsidies; keeping out of the bill a measure to stop states from using private firms for initial screening of food stamp applicants; allowing the U.S. government to spend up to 25 percent of food aid money on purchases from other countries; and placing a cap on the adjusted gross income of farmers and nonfarmers who can receive farm subsidies. Agriculture Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner and other officials were present throughout the conference, but were not asked any questions. Late Thursday evening, Conner issued a statement that the president "wants to sign a farm bill that meets his criteria. If sent to him without meeting his criteria, he would be forced to veto the bill. We encourage the conferees to produce a bill which will gain his signature by reducing the cost and implementing real reform." Conner's statement renewed Democratic fears that Bush will veto the bill no matter how it is written, but House Agriculture ranking member Bob Goodlatte, who met with the president late Wednesday, and Chambliss have both said they would continue to work with the administration.
This article appears in the May 3, 2008, edition of National Journal Daily.