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Congressional climate is tough for farm bill

It’s not a good year for a farm bill.

Crop prices are sky-high. President Bush, who thinks the nation’s farm program is bloated, is leaving office and doesn’t need to court voters in rural America. There is less budget money to work with.

The leadership in Congress doesn’t exactly hail from farm country, and those lawmakers who do also must grapple with bigger election-year problems – such as mounting job losses and a deepening foreclosure crisis.

“When you don’t have enough budget, the fights become more intense over those precious resources,” said Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union. “You kind of have this perfect storm, all coming together at the same time, and you add in a lot of new players to the farm bill process, people that just say, ‘Oh, farmers are greedy’ or ‘Farmers don’t need this.’ ”

Things were different in 2002, when the last bill to expand agriculture and nutrition programs was written. Back then, rural America was recovering from hard times and there was more federal money to be spread around.

Bush was never a fan of the bill, but he signed it anyway with lukewarm praise. He still faced a re-election campaign, and his party was eyeing a Senate takeover.

“It’s not a perfect bill, I know that,” he said then.

This year, as Congress struggles to rewrite a new farm bill, Bush has less to lose. His administration has taken a hard line on multibillion-dollar farm bills passed by the House and Senate that would expand farmer subsidies even as crop prices skyrocket.

Congressional dynamics have also changed since the last farm bill. Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader from South Dakota who brokered the negotiations six years ago, lost his seat in 2004. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Republican, also hailed from a farm state, Texas.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada have not traditionally been involved in farm debates. Reid’s home state has little agriculture and Pelosi is from urban San Francisco.

Bush has threatened to veto both the House and Senate bills. That opposition and congressional infighting have stalled the bill, and negotiations are in disarray.

Negotiators face several obstacles. The Democratic chairmen of the House and Senate agriculture committees, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, have lost control of the legislation as tax packages were added to both bills to help pay for them and win votes.

That has brought into the mix House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel, who represents few farmers in his New York City district. He and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., are charged with finding an extra $10 billion for the bill but have agreed on very little.

At a farm bill meeting in Rangel’s office Thursday, shouting could be heard behind closed doors. Several senators, including Baucus, left angrily.

“Let’s just say it wasn’t good,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said afterward.

Members of the House say the farm bill is not the only thing widening the gap between the Baucus and Rangel. Contentious negotiations between the two tax committees on economic stimulus and other issues have left hard feelings on both sides, and the farm bill may bear some of the brunt of that.

“This is not the first time horns have been locked,” said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a North Dakota Democrat who sits on both the Agriculture and Ways and Means committees and is trying to help find a compromise. “I don’t think there is any question that the farm bill encountered some of the scarring that occurred in earlier legislative battles.”

Both sides traded offers Friday and a deal could still come together by April 25, when the bill is now set to expire after Bush reluctantly agreed to extend current law for a fourth time. If a deal doesn’t happen, the law may have to be extended for a year or longer.

Farm-state lawmakers say an extension is not ideal and the new legislation is still needed, even if it isn’t needed now. Gas prices are high, hurting farmers and ranchers who use a lot of fuel. And crop prices could always drop.

Farming, like writing a farm bill, is a volatile business.

Mary Clare Jalonick, Associated Press regional reporter for Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas, is covering the farm legislation this session.

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