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Aides, lobbyist silent on possible changes to bill draft

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said at the April 26 markup of the farm bill that they are open to further changes to the commodity title if they fit within the budget, but it's unclear whether the committee is considering any proposals to address the issues that rice and peanut growers and others have raised about the draft bill.

During the congressional recess both aides and lobbyists were reluctant to speak on the record. One aide to a senator who is not a member of the committee said that committee aides had begun asking aides from other offices their opinion of the bill and whether their bosses would support it as written, but did not offer solutions to any problems.

Senate aides noted that the bill that came out of the Senate Agriculture Committee was a product of the committee's current membership, which includes Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and John Thune, R-S.D., who wrote the “shallow loss” program that is the centerpiece of the new commodity support program, and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., a former Agriculture chairman, who supported it.

The aides also noted that southern power on the committee has diminished since the defeat of former Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln, R-Ark., but they pointed out that on the Senate floor, southerners will have more power in influencing the legislation.

One lobbyist also said it is becoming clear that Lucas will write his own bill, and that the final bill will have to be reconciled with whatever the House produces, but that farm leaders would like the two bills to be as similar as possible to reduce the time for reconciliation and to create an image of solidarity to get the bill passed.

Lobbyists and aides also said that conflicts remain over the importance of crop insurance, with northerners emphasizing that the Senate bill maintains and enhances that program, while rice and peanut growers still doubt whether it will work for them.

In addition, there are differences within groups over whether target prices are still needed to protect farmers from multiyear crop price declines.

Lobbyists have noted the decision to take out price protection in the 1996 Freedom Farm bill resulted in price and income declines that led to multibillion bailout packages in the late 1990s and the reintroduction of target prices and a countercylical program in the 2002 farm bill.

One Senate aide said that the new shallow loss program provides better protection than the farm program established in the 1996 bill, but some lobbyists say it is still not good enough. Another lobbyist said, however, that the concern over target prices outside rice and peanuts is limited to certain states such as Oklahoma and Montana and that the battle will have to be fought on a regional basis because it will not be possible to get national groups to take up the issue.

Resolving the conflicts over the commodity title is vital before the bill goes to the Senate floor because the farm bill will then face a wide range of critics outside of agriculture, a key Senate aide said.