Senate Democrats are mounting a full court press to try to persuade President Bush to back off 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.

“Ed is going to work with members of both parties on a bill that spends the people’s money wisely, doesn’t raise taxes, reforms and tightens subsidy payments — a farm bill that will benefit the entire economy,” the president said.

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 Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, 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.”

Conrad’s comments came during a press briefing on a “Rural Report Card” unveiled by Conrad and Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. The fiscal 2009 budget announced by the Bush administration Monday (Feb. 4) received a failing grade in the report card.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Agriculture Committee who will chair the House-Senate farm bill conference committee, issued a statement asking the president to rethink his stance on the farm bill.

“For President Bush to continue to take a hard line and threaten to veto a farm bill is unproductive and against the bipartisan spirit that made this bill a reality and that carried it through the Senate with one of the largest votes in the history of farm bills,” said Harkin. (The vote would have been 83-14 if the four presidential candidates had been present.)

“This measure is critical for our farming families and rural communities in Iowa and across this country, so I urge the president to back away from this position and instead work with farm bill negotiators to come up with a bill he can sign. The Senate farm bill is a good, strong measure that balances spending with revenues raised by closing tax loopholes and ending tax abuses — not by raising taxes — as the president has suggested.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. 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.”

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