The pace of farm bill negotiations remains glacial. Even with Southern farmers’ planting windows sliding open, Congress and the White House seem unable to get unstuck from the rhetorical muck.

While he didn’t mention numbers during a recent press conference, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin said leaders on the new farm bill had agreed on a “final range” of funds for the legislation. Following months of wrangling with the White House, this is considered progress.

“We’re engaged in ongoing, intense negotiations to nail down a farm bill,” said Harkin. “On Tuesday evening (Feb. 26), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, (House Agriculture Committee) Chairman Collin Peterson and I as well as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel all got together. We had a productive meeting.

“There will be further discussions and negotiations, of course. But we’ve narrowed the range and sharpened the focus on a specific, overall number.”

A final budget number “will allow us to move much faster to wrap up negotiations and produce a conference agreement. I want to caution you: nothing has been agreed to as a hard and fast number. It’s still up to the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees to determine how we’ll pay for the farm bill.”

Harkin is “determined to maintain the investments we were able to achieve in the Senate (version of the farm) bill as we also work to accommodate a disaster program of some form in conference…

“We still have a substantial distance to go but the negotiators all have a sense that this is doable and we want to get it done. It’s also a positive that the Senate and House leaders are engaged and on-board. We hope the White House will come around, as well.”

Hope is fine but what’s the main hold-up to a deal?

“I think the roadblock remains the White House’s insistence they won’t approve any new money for the (farm) bill even though it comes from loophole-closing. They call that an increase in taxes even though they put some of that in their own budget requests for next year.

“This is getting very frustrating. Usually when you negotiate, both sides move. The White House won’t move.”

Asked if the White House was sending mixed messages, Harkin agreed that was the case. “Yes, they say they want a farm bill but they won’t negotiate. They won’t budge on a number. They won’t agree to what our offsets are.

“A couple of weeks ago, there was a positive signal (from the White House) on revenue. Now, the rug seems to have been pulled out again by the (Bush) administration. We’re all frustrated with them.”

If the White House continues to balk at a final deal, will Congress provide the public a set of numbers and facts and challenge the Bush administration to respond publicly?

“That’s my position,” said Harkin. “I’ve tried to work with the administration in good faith. We’ve met and tried to move the ball forward.

“Negotiation has to be a two-way street — not one-way all the time. We’ve modified, changed and trimmed a lot of things and the (Bush) administration hasn’t budged.”

Harkin expressed concern that Speaker Pelosi has yet to appoint conferees on the farm bill. While the Senate has already appointed its members to the negotiating team, Pelosi won’t appoint House members until a basic agreement on the farm bill is worked out.

“This has gone on long enough. I keep pointing out — and said so in the (recent) meeting — why don’t we just do the Senate bill? We have 79 votes for it and that can override a veto.”

Asked what elements need to be in the final farm bill, Harkin said compromises must be reached on, among other things: reforms, payment limits and AGI. Also on the to-do list are agreements on loan rates and target prices with commodities and balancing done in the Senate bill. Other items — energy, rural development, nutrition, conservation — “all need to be funded adequately. I never thought putting a disaster program in the bill was good policy. I support the Senate bill, but not everything in it.”

Harkin said prior to 2003, money had never been taken out of agriculture to pay for disaster. By setting such a precedent, he sees “bad things down the pipe.

“We have to set out the parameters about how it will be distributed and put on a time limit. My staff did research and prior to 2003 all disaster money went out in six to eight months. We could do that so farmers know they wouldn’t have to wait three years.”

Beef recall/animal ID

In a separate issue, Harkin was preparing to appear at the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the Hallmark/Westland beef recall.

“This is the largest beef recall in U.S. history. I intend to question the USDA on the matter and see if more funding is needed to strengthen our food safety system.”

Harkin believes the recall again points to the need for a “workable, comprehensive animal ID system so we can trace meat right back to animals and lots. It would be good not only for the meat-producing industry, but for consumers. That way, if something like this happens, you can trace it back to a specific animal and maybe a lot of the meat won’t have to be destroyed.

“When we get this farm bill put to bed — one way or the other — I’ll look at the animal ID system that we have to get done in this country.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com