The chairman and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee say they don’t buy arguments that more than $6 billion has to be cut from the 2008 farm bill so it can pass muster with the Bush administration.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman, and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the ranking member, issued a statement saying they want to provide $12.3 billion in “above-baseline” spending for commodity, conservation, energy, nutrition and rural development programs in the 2008 farm bill.

The proposal came two days after House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson and ranking member Bob Goodlatte offered to limit spending in the new farm bill to $6 billion above baseline to win White House support for the legislation.

“This afternoon (Feb. 14), Senate farm bill negotiators submitted a spending proposal to the House that meets the needs of this farm bill without having to cut back on the critical investments made by the Senate-passed bill in renewable energy, conservation, nutrition, rural development and better diets and health for all Americans,” Harkin said.

Speaking to reporters, Harkin said he agrees with Reps. Peterson, D-Minn., and Goodlatte, R-Va., that time is growing short for passing a farm bill before an extension of the current law expires on March 15.

But Harkin said the Senate bill passed by too wide a margin (79-14) for Senate leaders to “just give up” the improvements the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry made in the nutrition, energy, conservation and rural development titles of the new farm bill.

“Support for these investments was strong in the Senate, where our measure passed by one of the largest farm bill votes in history,” he said. “Support for this effort was also strong in rural America, where spending on agriculture is a small part of the overall federal budget.

“The Senate proposal provides an outline of spending that is $12.3 billion above baseline — spending that is not only critical for farmers and rural America, but also our nation as a whole,” he said.

Responding to the Peterson-Goodlatte proposal, a group of 38 farm organizations sent a letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the ag committees, saying the House Ag Committee proposal was “seriously under-funded” and proposed cuts to the commodity programs were “excessive.”

The letter, which was signed by groups ranging from the American Farm Bureau Federation to the National Farmers Union, said more money was needed in the farm bill to protect the agricultural safety net. The groups argued that the House plan also incorporated administration proposals that were rejected by both ag committees in 2007.

Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer panned the Senate proposal in a statement jointly issued by himself and Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner. They said the Senate plan would increase taxes and grow the size and scope of government while failing to implement much needed reforms.

“We are disappointed the Senate has not joined the House in proposing a package that seeks fiscal discipline and real reform while providing a true safety net,” they said. “The President has said time and time again that he will not support a bill that raises taxes and uses taxpayer dollars to increase the size of government.”

But Harkin said the Bush administration may find the president “has to bend” on the farm bill rather than continuing to demand the House and Senate meet him more than half way on the farm bill.

“The White House has to understand they have a lot of people in their party who favor our bill,” said Harkin. “We understand the White House is trying to drive a hard bargain, but they may reach a point where they have to compromise.

“I think we’re driving a pretty hard bargain in the Senate, too. Sen. Chambliss and I believe we have a lot of votes in the Senate. Is there a deal we can make that they won’t veto? The White House has to decide whether they want to veto a farm bill or reach some compromises.”

Harkin was asked if he was concerned House leaders have been negotiating directly with the administration on the farm bill? “No, we have been kept informed by Chairman Peterson at every step,” he said. “The House had to get Republicans back on board for their bill. We didn’t have that problem in the Senate.”

(The farm bill vote in the House was much closer than in the Senate (231-131) after Republicans bolted after House Democrats added a measure taxing the earnings of foreign corporations in the United States to pay for their spending increases.)

“The goal now is to reach agreement with House negotiators and the White House so we can identify funding mechanisms to support these investments that the White House, Senate and House can agree upon,” said Harkin. “I remain optimistic that all negotiators will see the benefits of swift action and agreement so that we can bring the farm bill to fruition.”

e-mail: flaws@farmpress.com