Only the primary authors of a new, approximately $280 billion farm bill still say the legislation will be in place by an April 18 deadline.

And even they’re hedging — probably a wise approach after the farm bill’s first conference committee on April 10 lasted less than two hours and, according to multiple sources, failed to dislodge entrenched positions or find the funds needed to pay for the new legislation.

The conference came about only after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, following weeks of refusing to name conferees, finally produced a list of 49 (compared to the Senate’s 11) just prior to the meeting. The group is largely made up of urban-based representatives, a fact cited by several unhappy senators from largely agricultural states.

The legislative process has “been hijacked by urban interests,” claimed South Dakota Sen. John Thune.

During a press conference on April 9, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the current farm bill deadlock would be broken only after a source for $10 billion in new spending is found and a “very sharp disagreement” between the House and Senate on several billion dollars in taxes is resolved.

A day later, Harkin began the much-anticipated conference meeting by saying prompt action was needed as farmers are already in the field. He also acknowledged the priority discrepancies between the House and Senate.

“There are significant differences and disagreements, to be sure, yet we also have a lot of shared goals, objectives and interests.”

For over a month, “we have been working on the assumption we will have available $10 billion in addition to our 10-year budget baseline. … We’re now close at finalizing an agreement that can be broadly supported using this $10 billion along with $9 (billion) we have shifted around within the baseline.

“Both versions of the bill continue and strengthen our system of farm income protection, a crucial component to this legislation. Both bills address additional national priorities: Filling the gaps in nutrition assistance, investing in farm-based renewable energy, helping farmers and ranchers conserve our natural resources, devoting substantial new funding to initiatives for growers of fruits, vegetables and horticultural crops — this is the first farm bill to ever really do that.”

No one is likely to be fully satisfied with whatever bill is finally cobbled together, Harkin admitted. “I will not get everything I want and neither will anybody else. But I think we are all going to have something that we can be proud of.”

He then pointed to White House intransigence as a major reason for its tardiness. “Frankly, to get that part of our job done, we must see a lot more cooperation, reasonableness and flexibility from the White House. After (the Senate farm bill) passed 79-14 (the largest Senate majority for a farm bill since 1948), within two days the White House said they would veto it. Well, when you get 79 votes you don’t expect that kind of a response. It’s time for the White House to come to the table and deal with us in good faith to get this critical bill enacted.”

If precedence holds, Bush administration officials — already threatening a veto if funding targets and policy reforms aren’t met — are unlikely to be moved. In fact, following the conference meeting, USDA head Ed Schaefer downplayed the bill’s chances for hitting the April 18 deadline. Congress has “been at it for two years. We’re down to the last few days and they don’t have anything solved. That doesn’t give me a lot of optimism they can get it done.”

House leadership had some complaints, as well. Minnesota’s Collin Peterson, chair of the House Agriculture Committee, said the Senate is particularly overreaching on disaster aid and “indefensible” things like a $500 million capital gain treatment for thoroughbred racing horses.

Peterson had earlier proposed $5.5 billion in spending over the bill’s budget baseline. This amount, he said, could be offset by the way credit card companies report sales. When informed of the House credit card proposal, USDA officials were dismissive.

The House version also called for the removal of the $4 billion disaster program. Not surprisingly, farm advocates were displeased with the initial conference meeting and the framework the politicians are working from.

The House proposal attracted special rebuke from Tom Buis, National Farmers Union president, as it “provides zero funding for a permanent disaster program which, in my opinion, is the only significant improvement in the commodity title of either bill. Farmers and ranchers are facing unprecedented increases in production costs, thus their financial risks are greater than ever.

"With a reduced crop, producers will not be able to offset these increased costs in the marketplace. It does not matter what the price of the commodity is if you have nothing to sell.

"I would urge the Senate to reject this latest offer from the House. It is vitally important that Congress pass a good farm bill, not just a farm bill for the sake of passing a new bill."

In crafting a new farm bill, congressional leaders have said if everything except paperwork is ironed out prior to April 18, another short-term extension of current law – perhaps a week, suggested Harkin — is likely. However, others are pointing at the increasing possibility for a one- or two-year extension or, in the case of Peterson, a willingness to revert to permanent law.

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com