(Feb. 7) While Congress remains at an impasse with the Bush administration on funding sources for the farm bill, the Senate made some headway in early February.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, will chair the farm bill conference committee, and the rest of Senate farm bill conference committee members were named Feb. 4 by Harkin and ranking member Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. The list includes specialty crop industry advocate Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

A spokesman for the House Agriculture Committee indicated on Feb. 5 it was uncertain when House leaders would announce participants in the House farm bill conference committee.

Harkin said in a news release the senators appointed to the committee represent diverse expertise and agricultural interests.

The list of Democratic senators selected for the conference committee:

  • chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus, D-Mont.;

  • chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Kent Conrad, D-N.D.;

  • hairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.;

  • Senate Agriculture Committee member Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and

  • Senate Agriculture Committee member Stabenow.

The list of the Republican senators selected for the conference committee in addition to Chambliss:

  • former Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind.;

  • ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa;

  • ranking member Senate Appropriations Committee Thad Cochran, R-Miss.; and

  • Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

There appeared to be little sign of a breakthrough in talks with the White House about funding sources for the farm bill, said Tara Smith, lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, Washington, D.C.

Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer repeated the message that the White House would not accept tax increases to pay for the farm bill.

She noted House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has floated the idea of reverting back to the 1949 farm program law — which would happen if no new farm bill or extension of the old farm bill is passed by March 15.

“I think ultimately is a negotiating tool for Congress to use to oppose the hard line position the administration is taking,” she said.

She said reverting back to the 1949 law “would probably violate every trade agreement we have.”

The recently released budget numbers from the White House featured a $2 billion reduction over five years in farm program payments, owing to recently passed energy legislation.

Another reduction in the budget baseline for agriculture will be issued by March 15, and that reality adds to the pressure to complete work o the farm bill by then.

Specialty crop interests seek to preserve nearly $2 billion in mandatory funding over five years from the House and Senate farm bills, but Smith said it won’t be easy.

“President Bush set the bar pretty high, and (it’s nearly) impossible,” she said. “Unless you use some sort of tax provision, there is really no way to pay for some of this stuff,” she said.