Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin, House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson and other key negotiators announced late Tuesday they had finalized a farm bill conference report that addresses the White House's demands for major changes in farm programs.
Peterson and House Agriculture ranking member Bob Goodlatte briefed House Agriculture Committee conferees late Tuesday night. Harkin said he would brief Senate Agriculture Committee members early today and that a formal conference could be held as early as today. Peterson said the bill could be on the floor by the middle of next week.
Goodlatte said some Republican conferees were happier than others but that he believes the negotiations are "very near the end." He added, "There is more reform in here than there was [Tuesday] morning."
An extension of the 2002 farm bill expires Friday, and the House and Senate are expected to pass another one-week extension and ask President Bush to sign it.
The announcement came after a daylong session of negotiations during which Agriculture Secretary Schafer and Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner spent two hours detailing the administration's concerns.
Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad said Schafer and Conner "delivered quite a clear message" that the White House wanted them to address all the reforms it had demanded.
Peterson said Schafer and Conner told him they had no authority to negotiate alterations to administration demands.
Conferees had argued that some other changes in farm policy, including some of the changes in tax law, should count as reforms.
"We have come farther toward the White House than they came toward us," Harkin said. "I hope the White House doesn't think it gets 100 percent of everything."
Senate Agriculture ranking member Saxby Chambliss said he requested a meeting with President Bush as soon as possible for himself and other Republican members. Chambliss said their message to Bush would be, "We've got a farm bill you can sign."
A Chambliss aide said the other Republican senators who want to attend the White House meeting are Finance ranking member Charles Grassley, Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran, and Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas and Norm Coleman of Minnesota. All are conferees except Coleman, who faces a tough re-election fight.
Negotiators declined to announce details of the agreement until after they have shared them with other conferees. But they said they had moved toward the White House positions on the level of adjusted gross income at which subsidies would be banned, whether farmers can continue to own commodities after they have received government subsidies, and ending the prohibition on planting fruits and vegetables on land that draws subsidies.
Chambliss said the agreement does not put a cap on marketing loans. It was unclear what kind of adjusted gross income limit it would put on subsidy recipients and whether individuals who get most of their income from farming would face a level of income at which they could not get subsidies.
A Senate aide said the Bush administration wanted a cap on the income of farmers who can get subsidies as well as a cap on people who get less than two-thirds of their income from farming.
The negotiators have apparently satisfied Bush's demand that increased spending in the bill not raise taxes by using an extension of customs user fees to pay for a $10 billion increase in spending. The bill's biggest increase is $10.36 billion for domestic and international nutrition programs.
The announcement came after a long day in which Harkin, Peterson, Conrad, Chambliss, Grassley, Goodlatte, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., who was representing House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, spent most of their time sequestered in the Capitol.
This article appears in the May 3, 2008 edition of NJ Daily.