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Gang of Six proposal appears good for agriculture

The possibility that the budget proposal developed by the Gang of Six senators may be revived appears to be good news for agriculture compared with other, more radical budget-cutting measures.

The Gang of Six proposal became public today following the news that Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., had rejoined the group. It would cut agriculture spending by $11 billion over 10 years, but protect food stamps and allow the Agriculture committees to decide how to make the cuts, according to a copy of the proposal that National Journal said was presented to a group of 49 senators and then spread more broadly.

The proposal said that the senators were proposing a two-step legislative process that would involve an initial $500 billion down payment to secure deficit savings and then require the appropriate committees within six months to report legislation according to criteria in the bill.

The $500 billion initial down payment would impose statutory caps on security and nonsecurity discretionary spending through 2015 and make other cuts, while the second step would include the $11 billion in agriculture cuts.

The Gang of Six had fallen apart when Coburn dropped out of the group, but he rejoined it today, according to a report in the National Journal. President Barack Obama praised Coburn’s return in the effort to take action before the August 2 deadline to raise the debt ceiling, calling it “a very significant step.”

“The hope is that everyone seizes this opportunity,” Obama said. “I want to congratulate the Gang of Six for coming up with a plan I think is balanced.”

The other members of the Gang of Six are Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., Mike Crapo, R-Idaho and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.

Conrad and Chambliss worked together closely on the 2008 farm bill and presumably helped protect agriculture. Neither Conrad nor Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., was willing to comment on the developments today, but Stabenow has noted that the House proposal to cut $48 billion had led some members of Congress to propose that at least $30 billion should be cut from agriculture over 10 years.

One of the reasons Coburn felt comfortable rejoining the group was that the deal includes a way to fix the issue of the Alternative Minimum Tax that conservative anti-tax activist Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform endorsed last week, National Journal reported.

Meanwhile, 34 agriculture and agribusiness groups including the National Cotton Council sent Obama and House and Senate leaders a letter today seeking prompt action on the debt ceiling/deficit reduction negotiations that does not require disproportionate cuts in agriculture and related programs, the cotton council said in a news release.

“(A)griculture is prepared to take a proportionate share of budget cuts provided everything is on the table,” the group’s letter said. “Last year, agriculture absorbed a net $6 billion reduction, according to the Congressional Budget Office, thus making it clear we have and will do our part to help with spending and deficit control. In this time of economic uncertainty and weather-related disasters, the farm bill provides safeguards for farmers and ranchers to consistently provide a safe and stable food supply.”