The United States Congress could provide the nation’s farmers a timely Christmas present by passing a farm bill before the holiday recess.

“The U.S. House of Representatives set out to get a farm bill done on time (before the 2002 Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 expired Sept. 30),” said Representative Collin Peterson, D-Minnesota, and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

Peterson, speaking via telephone hookup to the seventh annual Texas Commodity Symposium in Amarillo, said the bill “got bogged down in the Senate. It’s a pretty good bill, not perfect, but nutrition, conservation and renewable fuels will be happy with it.”

He said the Senate version of the bill is close to what the House passed and is bi-partisan. The problem, he said, was attempts to attach amendments to the bill. “They’re trying to limit amendments and appear to be close to a deal. We hope to see an agreement.”

Larry Combest, retired Texas Congressman, and one of the chief authors of the 2002 legislation, who continues to work for responsible farm legislation through a newly formed Southwest Ag Council and with Combest Sell and Associates, predicted Senate passage before Christmas.

“They will not get conferees together before January, however,” Combest said. Best estimate, he and Peterson agreed, would be in January with a final bill ready to send to the White House by early March.

Peterson, responding to a question by Plains Cotton Growers, Inc. executive vice-president Steve Verett, said the process could stretch out until late March or early April before Congress would be forced to push for extension of current law. The dairy program, however, will be extended, he said. “The dairy price support program expires Dec. 31 and if we do not extend the program it reverts back to permanent law.”

Combest said the next budget cycle, in late February, would be the next catalyst to push Congress to either pass a new bill or extend the current one.

Both Peterson and Combest expect a payment limitations proposal to pass the Senate. They said efforts to defeat the proposal will continue, but chances of it passing will be good. “USDA is fixated on payment limitations,” Peterson said.

“We will not accept it. They (Grassely and Dorgan) are off on the wrong track and are playing politics.”

He said more legislators support limiting payments to non-farmers. “But southern farmers can’t live with payment limitations,” he said.

Even if Congress passes a bill it still faces threat of a presidential veto. “That’s a problem,” Peterson said. “He threatened to veto the bill in 2002 but he did not and took credit for it. I hope to have a discussion with the president.”

Combest said many of the same advisors that opposed the 2002 bill are still in the administration. “Many are not. I hope the President who signed the 2002 bill will step up and sign this one.”

Peterson said the bill will face other hurdles in Ways and Means where many committee members are “not keen on agriculture.”

Peterson said an energy bill may make it through both houses before the farm legislation. “We’re negotiating for an increased renewable fuels standard (above 9 million gallons per year, up from the current 7 million). We can get to 9 million in 12 to 18 months,” he said.

Peterson said he remains optimistic that congress will pass a farm bill to “preserve the safety net and increase conservation and nutrition programs.”

email: rsmith@farmpress.com