Delta Council Report, the monthly newsletter that appears in the Delta Farm Press. The Delta Council, based in Stoneville, Miss., is an area development organization representing the 18 Delta and part-Delta counties of Northwest Mississippi. Q: The conferees reportedly have agreed to delay the implementation of any changes they might make in the payment limit language until 2003. Are there any late developments on this? A: The Senate counter-offer that was made Wednesday night (April 17) included the Grassley payment limitation amendment. As part of doing that, Sen. Conrad of North Dakota pointed out that the Grassley provisions possibly could not be implemented in time to affect the ’02 crops, but that should the language become part of the final conference report they would be in effect for the remaining years of the farm bill or 2003 through 2008. Q: There were earlier reports that a compromise had been reached on the Grassley amendment. What happened? A: Given what had happened in the negotiations over the previous two or three weeks, we were surprised Wednesday night when they brought this proposal in because there had been an agreement between the Senate leadership and the Southern Democratic senators that Grassley would not be part of the conference agreement. So I’m sure it was somewhat disappointing to Sen. Lincoln and Sen. Miller and Sen. Cleland as well as Sens. Breaux and Landrieu that the Senate Democratic alternative not only re-introduced the Grassley payment limit amendment, which had earlier been modified to the point that the Southern senators could accept it. But they re-introduced it in its original form and then, to top it off, the Senate Democratic proposal essentially walked away from the peanut program, which obviously is very critical to the two Georgia senators and those in North and South Carolina and Alabama. Those southern senators got a pretty good jolt on Wednesday night when the leadership behind Sen. Conrad offered a proposal that took us back at least four or five weeks in the negotiations. Q: Where do you see the payment limit issue going? A: Specifically on Grassley, I think it’s very clear that the House members on the conference – both Democrats and Republicans – and the Senate Republican conferees are not going to support final passage of a conference report that has the Senate-proposed Grassley amendment. I would hope that the fact that they dredged this amendment back up, almost precisely as it was offered in the Senate, is only an indication that they want to use that as leverage to get some of their more important points back on the table like increasing the corn loan rate. Q: Why are Senate Democrats so determined to pass a bill with a higher corn loan rate? A: The thing that all of us continue to have a problem with but should never underestimate is that we still have the month of November left in this year. A lot of what we are talking about with these small margins like 2 cents on the corn loan rate is about November, in our view. Some of state producer organizations have a strong position on higher loan rates for corn. Now, I would point out that the National Corn Growers is not supporting the $2 corn loan rate. And the National Corn Growers have also said that payment limitations, the three-entity rule and so forth are very critical to them. Nevertheless, there are United States senators in leadership positions who feel that a $2 corn loan rate is essential in order to emerge from this conference with a victory. I think it speaks volumes for Mr. Combest and Mr. Stenholm that they have gone from a $1.89 corn loan rate to $1.975. Our earliest information indicates that’s a total of an $8 billion shift over seven years. So, they’ve added $8 billion of corn loan rate over the original House proposal which I would call a significant good faith step toward compromise. This last 2.5 cents might be what this whole Senate counter-offer is about. Q: Are there other issues that have the potential to derail this process? A: I think most people would agree that the corn loan rate is the biggest outstanding issue. Now, you have to address Grassley, you have to satisfy the states where peanuts are very important and you have to satisfy Sen. Leahy on the dairy provisions. Now, other than that, most of the other areas that might be called a point of impasse have been agreed to. I would say that when the corn loan rate is resolved, I personally believe you will hear a lot less about the Grassley amendment. The other things that need to be addressed to satisfy the conferees are dairy and peanuts. Q: What role do you see Vermont’s Sen. Leahy playing in possibly brokering a deal on the farm bill? A: Sen. Leahy is chairman of the Judiciary Committee; he’s the senior member of the conference committee; and a former chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. He has a lot of experience in arranging and helping support compromises. The dairy provision is certainly one that he will take very seriously. But a potentially even higher order of business for Sen. Leahy is to make sure that before we possibly forfeit the budget allocation that we currently have to write good farm legislation that he brings together some bipartisan support for those provisions I’ve outlined at the end of this conference. Hopefully, that will be during April. Q: Could Sen. Leahy, a Democrat, be the swing vote in forcing the Senate Democrats to bring the conference to a successful conclusion? A: Our experience through the Senate farm bill debate is that there won’t be a fracture in the vote among Democratic conferees on the Senate side of the table, in my judgment. Really, the question becomes when will Sen. Daschle step forward and start being the compromiser and solution-finder just like he did on the Senate floor? When that happens, there will be the votes necessary for us to get a farm bill conference report so that farmers can get some help in this 2002 crop year. The pivotal issue, to me, is when Mr. Daschle steps forward and starts dealing straight with Mr. Combest and Mr. Stenholm. Remember Sen. Daschle is not only the majority leader; he is also a member of the farm bill conference. When he shows up, we’ll know we can begin to count the days that will be left in the conference. Q: Any guesses on how much longer it could go on? A: We’re taking it a day at a time. My impression when we left last Friday (April 19) was that Mr. Combest and Mr. Stenholm had the same level of commitment and resolve that they’ve had all along to get this farm bill done this year. If someone has some different ideas, they will just have to walk away from the conference because Congressman Combest and Congressman Stenholm are going to keep grinding these titles out until they get a farm bill. If you look at Chairman Combest and the ranking minority member on the House side, you would have to say they are just as determined today as they have ever been to get this bill out at the end of April or early May and get it on the President’s desk. Those two guys are doing a masterful job of maintaining the dignity of the conference and continuing to march right on without looking at the victories or the defeats of the prior day. I think it also should be noted that the southern Democrats from the Senate side have played a formidable role in the positive developments we have seen so far, and they will play an even more formidable role in the next few weeks. Although they are not members of the conference committee, Sens. Lincoln, Miller, Cleland, Breaux and Landrieu have very quietly and effectively played a huge role in the process. If we have a successful conclusion to this conference, it will be due in no small part to the efforts they have made on behalf of their farmers.
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