The statement, issued as the Senate prepared for a motion to invoke cloture on the debate on a new farm bill, said the Ag Committee bill would “exacerbate current problems of overproduction and low commodity prices.” The Senate subsequently passed the motion, which is designed to set a time limit for debate, by a vote of 73 to 26.

“Because new legislation will shape the future of U.S. agriculture in an unusually critical time, the administration believes that the Senate should resist retreating to policies, such as those contained in S. 1731, that will ultimately harm our farmers and ranchers,” the Statement of Administration Policy said.

“Consequently, the administration strongly opposes S.1731, urges the Senate to defeat it, and supports the Cochran-Roberts Amendment as the more responsible, effective approach in helping America’s farmers.”

Supporters of the Senate Ag Committee bill and the farm bill passed by the House in October said that once again the administration had weighed in with a position that was “too little, too late.

“That’s been the story of this administration on the farm bill,” said an Arkansas producer who has been following the farm bill debate closely. “They seem to be about two weeks behind on everything they do. And when they do come out with a position on the farm bill, it’s usually wrong.”

The strongly worded statement issued by the Office of Management and Budget said the Senate Ag Committee bill also could hinder U.S. efforts to get other countries to lower agricultural trade barriers. And it claimed the bill’s higher crop subsidies would primarily benefit large producers who least need the help.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman issued a statement after the release of the Bush administration policy paper. The statement urged Congress to take a cautious approach to the new farm bill.

“Farmers and ranchers face a rapidly changing marketplace and business environment,” she said. “The long-term policy direction of the next farm bill will impact our farmers for many years, which is why we must get it right. Our farmers and ranchers deserve no less.

She said the Senate bill would expand the government’s role in agriculture in a way that “threatens the financial health of the farm sector, compromises our efforts to expand our markets abroad, and harms American consumers, especially those with lower incomes.”

The administration statement said the Cochran-Roberts amendment contains “policy consistent with the President’s principles for sound farm policy. It provides for a strong safety net for farmers in times of low prices by continuing the current marketing loan program for traditional program crops, while better balancing loan rates, similar to the provisions in HR 2646, the House passed bill.”

“Cochran-Roberts also substantially increases the fixed de-coupled payments as a trade-friendly, alternative providing a stable safety net for our producers,” the secretary noted. “It also establishes innovative new farm savings accounts that provide another risk management tool for a broader range of producers.

“Cochran-Roberts would enhance conservation in a balanced way by improving existing programs and providing incentives for greater environmental benefits on working lands. Overall, the Cochran-Roberts amendment is responsible, effective farm policy that builds consensus and best helps our farmers and ranchers.”

The amendment, which was written by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, would make larger direct payments to farmers compared to the bill passed by the Ag Committee.

It would reduce the soybean loan rate, raise the sorghum loan rate and leave other loan rates in place where the Ag Committee bill raises loan rates for all of the program crops. It would offer farmers a subsidized “rainy day” savings account rather than the counter-cyclical payment plans of both the Senate Ag Committee and House farm bills.

But critics of the bill say the subsidized savings account would offer little help to producers who have seen almost no income in the last five years and have few prospects for improvement.

Under the amendment, the government would match a farmer’s deposits up to a maximum of $10,000 a year in a financial institution approved by the secretary of agriculture. Producers could withdraw the funds if their adjusted gross revenue falls below 90 percent of their five-year average adjusted gross revenue.

The farm savings account, as they are also called, would be available to row crop, livestock and fruit and vegetable growers rather than to commodity producers alone.

While the Cochran-Roberts amendment does not enjoy the support in farm country that the House bill has engendered, some observers say it would be a means for the Senate to pass a farm bill and go to conference with the House to get a farm bill to the President before Christmas.

In her statement, Veneman pledged to become more active in the farm bill debate than the administration has been until now.

“We stand ready to continue working with the Congress in a deliberative and collaborative process to craft forward-looking farm policy that better serves farmers and ranchers, and is better for rural America, the environment, and the nation’s consumers and our entire food and agriculture industry,” she said.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.