Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin said today he is “pulling every lever” to get the farm bill done by April 18, when the extension of the 2002 farm bill expires, and that he would oppose any further extension longer than a week. Harkin said the two big obstacles to finishing the bill — decisions on what offsets to use to pay for the $10 billion increase over the farm bill baseline and whether to include a package of tax breaks the Senate Finance Committee added to the bill — are outside his control. Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus and House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel disagree over what offsets to use and Rangel has opposed the inclusion of other tax measures in the farm bill.
Harkin also repeated a call he made Tuesday for Senate Majority Leader Reid and House Speaker Pelosi to resolve the impasse between Baucus and Rangel. Harkin said he believes Reid and Pelosi spoke about the issue late Tuesday. A Reid spokesman confirmed the two leaders held their regular weekly meeting and discussed a range of issues, but declined to comment further. The 60 tax measures would cost about $2.5 billion. House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson said Tuesday he hoped Pelosi would appoint farm bill conferees this week so a formal conference could be held on the offset and tax issues. A House Republican source said Pelosi is expected to name House conferees today, but neither Pelosi’s office nor Peterson’s returned requests for comment.
Harkin said he and Peterson have discussed trying to pass a bill based only on the $597 billion baseline as a backup if an agreement cannot be achieved between the House, Senate and Bush administration on offsets for the $10 billion increase, but that they have decided to hold that bill “in abeyance.” Harkin said a baseline bill could include $9 billion in shifts from one farm bill program. But he said he does not know if a bill with only $9 billion in shifts and no new money could pass. Harkin said the issue of making a small cut in the direct payments that farmers get whether prices are high or low has not been settled. Harkin noted that the program costs $5.2 billion per year and that a farmer who gets a $1,000 direct payment would lose only $20 per year if the direct payment program were cut by 2 percent. Most farm groups oppose a cut in direct payments because their leaders believe it could lead to higher cuts later on.
Meanwhile, Senate Finance ranking member Charles Grassley told Iowa reporters today he is disappointed with the ongoing farm bill negotiation. “It has not made a bit of progress in the last six weeks,” Grassley said. “Now you hear talk we may get it done this month. I do not want to throw cold water on that, but I think a five-year bill done in May is better than a one-year extension. It will look awfully ridiculous to farmers of America, who at the time are planting corn in Iowa, not to know our farm policy.”
Harkin said Tuesday the negotiators’ decision not to increase spending on rural development programs in the latest framework agreement “can’t hold.” Harkin said rural development needs more money because there is a backlog of requests for water and wastewater projects and programs to bring high-speed Internet to rural America. Rural hospitals, daycare programs and an effort he launched to help rural communities collaborate on economic development projects all need funding, he added.