Congress could still complete work on a new farm bill in January if the Senate can quickly resolve its amendment issues when it returns from the Thanksgiving recess, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee said.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said one key would be breaking the stalemate over how many amendments that can be offered for the Senate version of the farm bill. Some are blaming the White House for the impasse, but Peterson said the situation is more complicated.
After having little to say about the bill since the House passed its version in July, Peterson broke his silence at a press briefing just prior to the recess. Despite the stalemate in the Senate, he remains optimistic about the prospects for a 2007 farm bill.
“One of the reasons I haven't said much is I wanted the Senate to work on their bill without us getting in the way,” he said. “I've been getting more and more questions about the situation, and some of them I can't answer. I think when folks go home they're going to hear from their constituents, and they'll figure out some way to move this ahead.”
Peterson said he believes getting a bill passed and signed by the president eventually will involve negotiations with the White House. And he would like to meet with the president to try to find common ground on the bill.
“I think there needs to be some serious discussions with the White House, but I can't have those discussions until the Senate is finished with whatever they're doing,” he noted. “I have some ideas about how to break this logjam once we get into conference, but I think it would be premature to say anything now.”
Senate Democratic leaders tried to invoke cloture on the farm bill before they left for the Thanksgiving recess but fell five votes short of the 60 needed to limit debate on the bill to 30 hours and require both parties to negotiate a list of priority amendments.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said Democratic leaders would try the procedure again when the Senate returns to Washington the first week in December.
Harkin and other Democrats blame the White House for the stalemate in the Senate, claiming the president's staff has told Senate Republicans to “kill” the farm bill rather than have the president follow through on the White House's threat to veto a farm bill.
Peterson disagreed, however, saying he believes the situation is the reverse of what Harkin and Sen. Kent Conrad, the senior Democrat on the agriculture committee, have been saying.
“I don't think it's the White House,” said Peterson. “I think it's the Senate Republicans who don't want the White House to veto the bill, and then they have to defend the White House.”
Peterson said administration officials, including acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner, have made no secret of their dislike of the payment limit language in the Senate Agriculture Committee's farm bill, which is now on the Senate floor.
The bill lowers the adjusted gross income a person can earn and continue to receive farm payments to $750,000 by 2009 but actually increases the amount of counter-cyclical and marketing loan deficiency payments each person can receive.
“If you look at what the president is focusing on, things like payment limits, cotton, this is a tough bill to swallow in the South,” said Peterson. “I think it's a very difficult situation for the Republican senators from the South, when you have the president going after their constituents. How do you go home and explain that?”
If the Senate is forced to deal with all of the 270-plus amendments that could be offered, it will be difficult for it to finish work on the farm bill and send the legislation to a House-Senate conference committee in December.
“Part of the problem is you've got people weighing in with all kinds of amendments that are irrelevant,” said Peterson. (The list includes issues ranging from fixing the alternative minimum tax rate to eliminating the estate tax to banning driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.) “Some of the ag amendments are not even relevant.”
Bush administration officials have also said they aren't happy with the increases in the loan rates and target prices for wheat, soybeans and other oilseeds in the farm bill now being considered in the Senate.
The monetary amounts are not that significant, according to Peterson, “but, philosophically, I think it causes them some problems. The other thing is the financing. When you get behind the politics and so forth, the biggest issue is how to pay for this farm bill.
“How you mesh the Senate offsets versus our offsets versus what the White House wants — that will be the difficult thing,” he noted. “But it can be done. It's just a matter of us sitting down and working this out. But we need to get the Senate to move the bill so we can start that part of the process.”
If the Senate can sort out its amendments and pass its bill, Peterson said, “I think about 75 percent of this stuff could be worked out fairly easily by the time we get back here in January. And I think, frankly, the rest of it could be worked out in a week or so.
“If they can get a bill out in December, we can still get this done in January. I'm optimistic we can find a way to do that. I know Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to get this done, Sen. Harkin and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, ranking member on the ag committee, have been working on this.”
The only major fly in the ointment for Peterson is the recourse loan requirement in the Senate bill's average crop revenue option. “That's got to go,” says Peterson.