Just when it seemed the 2008 farm bill couldn’t get any more complicated, word spread that House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., had been hospitalized in New York with the flu.

Rangel’s illness comes during a critical time for the farm bill negotiations because House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders and the White House are still wrangling (no pun intended) over how to offset $10 billion in “over-baseline” funding that Sen. Tom Harkin says is needed to pass the legislation.

The 77-year-old New York Democrat has been meeting with Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus to try to figure out how to pay for the proposed funding increases in the farm bill.

The House and Senate passed a bill extending the current law until April 18 rather than let it expire March 15. President Bush said he would sign the extension, but urged Congress to complete a new farm bill soon. He also said he would not sign a bill with tax increases or without the payment limit reforms proposed by the White House.

“A deal on a new farm bill is within reach, but we need additional time,” Harkin told reporters in his weekly telephone press conference. “Perhaps our biggest remaining challenge is to obtain the needed funding for the bill, and to apportion that limited funding among many competing priorities. The funding is not yet confirmed.”

Rangel and Baucus, as chairmen of the two revenue-raising bodies in the Congress, were expected to have a major say in how that funding would be obtained. Harkin said he didn’t think Rangel’s illness was a major obstacle.

“He (Rangel) could deputize his chief of staff to sit in on the negotiations or we could work with him by phone,” he said, adding he hoped to finalize the funding arrangements by the Friday afternoon (March 14) before Congress went on Easter break. (No announcement had been made late Friday afternoon.)

Harkin said he was anxious to finalize an agreement on the budget number so the staffs of the ag committees and their members could continue working on the farm bill during the two-week break.

“This week, I have met daily with the other three principal negotiators — Ranking Member Saxby Chambliss, House Chairman Collin Peterson and House Ranking Member Bob Goodlatte,” he said. “Our mission is to reach agreement on a framework within the $10 billion in new funding that we expect to be available.”

Harkin said the committee leaders want to “best elements” of the Senate- and House-passed farm bills, including a strong farm income protection system and strong investments in renewable energy, conservation, nutrition assistance and rural development.

That does not include turning control of some farm programs over to the Finance and Ways and Means Committees as Baucus and Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking member of the Finance Committee, have suggested.

“I have talked with the other three principals — Chambliss, Peterson and Goodlatte — and we all agree that is unacceptable,” he said. “We set up the programs — such as disaster assistance, conservation and nutrition – and the Finance Committee decides how much money to put in them.

“Besides, our Constitution says all revenue measures have to originate in the House of Representatives, not the Senate,” he said. “That’s why Chairman Rangel is so important in this mix. On the other hand, if we start turning over control of agriculture programs to the Finance Committee, we’re headed down a dangerous slope.”

While Harkin said the four principals have agreed to a budget number of $10 billion over baseline, House Ag Committee Chairman Peterson was quoted earlier in the week as saying he was prepared to introduce a “baseline” bill because of continued White House opposition to increased farm bill spending.

Harkin said he did not believe a baseline bill would fly because it would mean many programs sponsored by commodity, nutrition and environmental groups would be drastically scaled down and cut from the farm bill.

“We started at $14 billion over baseline, then went to $13 billion and now we’re down to $10 billion,” he said. “I think a baseline bill would be hard to pass because it would be difficult to meet our obligations on nutrition, crops and the other improvements in the Senate and House farm bills.”

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