MARY CLARE JALONICK Associated Press Writer WASHINGTON
A new program designed to compensate farmers for weather-related crop losses is expected to survive congressional negotiations over multibillion-dollar farm legislation. Farm-state members from droughtprone states in the West and Midwest have aggressively pushed the idea, saying they can't always depend on Congress or the White House to come up with emergency money when farmers lose everything they have due to drought or flooding. Montana Sen. Max Baucus, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, created the $5 billion disaster fund when his panel wrote its portion of the farm bill last year. He said Friday he has an agreement with Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the Democratic chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, that at least $4.2 billion will be dedicated for the fund. A spokeswoman for Peterson said she could not confirm that number, and that Peterson was traveling and unavailable for comment. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, confirmed that the disaster fund is expected to be part of the bill, though he didn't give a dollar amount. Harkin has opposed the idea, saying it could be vulnerable to abuse. "There will be some funds for disaster in there," Harkin said. "How much that's going to be, I don't know." The disaster fund is one of many Programs that is up in the air as the House, Senate and Bush administration continue to argue over the details of the legislation. They are under a time crunch current law, signed by Bush in 2002, expires March 15. At issue is how the bill, which would extend and expand agriculture and nutrition programs, will be paid for. The government estimates the farm bill programs will cost about $280 billion over the next five years and roughly $600 billion over the next 10 years. The Bush administration wants Congress to keep spending within those limits and has threatened to veto both bills but both the House and Senate want to spend more. Both chambers passed bills last year that cost around $286 billion over five years. Negotiators are now looking at spending approximately $10 billion extra over 10 years, and have been scrambling to find ways to come up with that money. Under Democratic rules, additional spending must be offset in some way. The Bush administration has said it would consider the $10 billion figure if Congress further limits subsidies that go to wealthy farmers and adheres to other administration requests. "Just as important as getting a number and agreeing upon it is how it will be paid for, whether the bill will create a more forward-looking set of farm policy," Agriculture Secretary Edward Schafer said at a National Farmers Union conference March 3. Several farm-state Democrats have blamed the administration for being difficult as negotiations progress on Capitol Hill. "The main problem, if I were to point to one single thing, is the White House's endless veto threats and objections to almost any 'pay for,' any offset," said Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, a senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "That's made it slow going because packages are put together that could have the offsets that are necessary, and the White House rejects them. They even reject things they themselves have proposed." Still, Conrad said, there has been progress as all parties have met repeatedly in recent weeks. Members are hoping to come to agreement by this week, before Congress adjourns for a two-week spring recess. "My hope is that before we leave here that there's a framework agreement," he said. Though the work won't all be done by the March 15 deadline, bill negotiators are hoping they can have enough agreement to enact a one-month extension of the bill this week and have it signed by the president by April 15. North Dakota Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a Democratic member of the House Agriculture Committee, says the two chambers should just write a bill and let the White House react. "It's time to forget about the White House for a little bit and finish it up, just the House and Senate," he said. "We simply have to cut through the legislative hang-ups and get the thing passed." Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a member of the Senate agriculture panel, says it has been frustrating waiting for a breakthrough between all the different negotiating parties. South Dakotans are exasperated with the delays, he said. "As long as (farm) prices are good, and they are, there isn't the sense of urgency that there would be in farm country," he said. "That being said, people out here are just kind of rolling their eyes." South Dakota Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a Democrat who sits on the House panel, says waiting too long could be dangerous. "With a new administration and new members of Congress (next year), it's not like we can start where we left off," she said. Montana Sen. Baucus said he is confident it will come together soon. "We'll all work it out because we all want a farm bill," he said.