Senate Democrats are mounting a full court press to try to persuade President Bush to back off from his threat to veto the farm bill that a House-Senate conference committee is expected to report out in March or April.

Administration officials, including former Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner, have been saying they would recommend the president veto the new farm bill unless the conference committee made significant changes in the bills passed by the House and Senate last year.

But it wasn't until the formal swearing-in ceremony for former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer to become the new secretary of agriculture on Wednesday (Feb. 6) that the president explicitly said he would veto the farm bill, claiming it invests too much money in agriculture.

Those comments drew criticism from several senators who were instrumental in writing the Food and Energy Security Act of 2007 that passed the Senate by a vote of 79-14 in December.

“The farm bill is the single greatest piece of legislation we could pass to invigorate rural America,” said North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad, a senior Democrat on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

“For reasons beyond understanding, the Bush administration has grown increasingly hostile to the interests of rural America and the family farmer. We now need to send a clear message to the administration — do not veto this farm bill.”

Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Agriculture Committee who will chair the House-Senate farm bill conference committee, told reporters he thought the president “relishes the idea” of vetoing the farm bill.

“It's extremely unfortunate that the president continues to dig in his heels,” said Harkin, speaking at his weekly press briefing for farm editors. “Just yesterday he used Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer's swearing in ceremony to reiterate his threat to veto any bill that ‘raises taxes.’

“Coming on the heels of the statements in his state of the union address last week, it now seems that Mr. Bush relishes any and every opportunity to veto the farm bill. This is not constructive or helpful. It stands in stark contrast to the bipartisan spirit that allowed this bill to pass the Senate by one of the largest majorities ever for a farm bill.”

Critical legislation

Harkin said the bill is critically important to the farming families and rural communities in Iowa and across America who urgently need the new investments in renewable energy, rural economic development, nutrition and conservation in the bill.

“The fact is we are not spending enough on agriculture and rural America when you consider federal spending overall,” he said. “In fact, it's less than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget.

“So I urge the president to step away from this harsh rhetoric and inflexible stance on the farm bill. We need him as a partner so we can produce a farm bill that is good for the country.”

Ending tax abuses or closing tax loopholes to make more funds available for farm programs “is not raising taxes,” he said. “That's just responsible budgeting. I hope the president will take another look and reconsider his inflexible stance. As a matter of fact, in the budget he just sent down, he proposes to close a number of loopholes.”

Harkin said the conference will continue to press ahead (once House members are named) to produce a farm bill. “Hopefully, the president will sign it, but we'll just have to wait and see.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senator Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark joined Conrad and Dorgan at their press briefing.

In an earlier press conference, Lincoln said she could see no reason for the House-Senate conference committee not to pass a farm bill and for President Bush to sign it in time for the 2008 crops.

“That would just be crazy,” said Lincoln when asked what she thought about allowing the farm bill to revert to permanent law (the 1949 or 1938 Agriculture Acts). “The Senate passed a strong, bipartisan bill with what could have been 83 votes. That is unprecedented for a farm bill.