In the thick of marking up a new budget in the House Budget Committee, Rep. Marion Berry said Democrat plans would provide enough funds for defense, rural development and agriculture spending. The east Arkansas Democrat, who sits on the Budget Committee, also said his party's proposals would mean a balanced budget by 2012.

“In many ways it's very austere and, at the same time, takes care of the priorities and the important matters before the country,” said Berry in a press conference on March 21.

“It will fully fund the defense needs of the country. It will fully fund the needs of our veterans as they return from Iraq and Afghanistan but also those veterans who've been in the system for a long time.

“It will provide enough money to write a decent farm bill. I'm very excited about that because that has always been one of my primary concerns.

“We feel we've provided enough money to take care of these needs. The good news is we've balanced the budget quicker than the president would. And we've done a fair and honest assessment of the priorities and have taken care of them.”

The budget proposal the Bush administration recently brought to Congress “doesn't really (balance) by 2012. He said it did, but it doesn't.”

Since taking control of Congress last fall, Democrats “inherited a most difficult fiscal situation. (The budget) also provides for dealing with the alternative minimum tax. We know that's a pitfall beginning next year that's a very serious economic matter.”

The Democrat plan doesn't deal with entitlement spending, however. Asked if the country can achieve long-term stability without broaching entitlements, Berry said, “We feel the most important thing is this budget gets us on a glide-path to a balanced budget. That way we won't spend the Social Security and Medicare surpluses anymore.

“As Ross Perot used to say, ‘First you stop the bleeding.’ Right now, that's what we're trying to do. We'll do the major surgery after we get the bleeding stopped.”

Is it Berry's hope that the extra money Democrats have put into the agriculture budget will help turn back desires by the Bush administration and Senate to tighten program payment limits?

“I know the administration proposed some things they consider to be good politics. But those would be terrible policy.

“For one thing, it would be impossible to implement it. You'd have to have 100 employees in the FSA offices in eastern Arkansas counties to even come close to implement (their proposals) in a responsible way.”

Queried about agriculture spending, Berry said, “There will be a $20 billion reserve set aside in this budget that'll give the committee enough money so they can deal with what we consider the most critical matters at hand: dairy program, peanut program, and, hopefully, a permanent disaster title.”

Congress should also focus on “alterative fuels support where we can continue to have necessary technical research and information going on.” Developing such information will “move us into cellulosic ethanol production and begin to get that industry established all over the country, especially in the lower Mississippi Valley.”

Before converting cellulose into ethanol becomes standard, there are issues to address. Chief among them is “we haven't perfected the process. And there's no pilot plant that can be shown to people ready and willing to invest in that sort of a production facility.

“The first thing we'll do is some research to improve our technology. There's already a lot of technology out there, but it must be centralized and have some order brought.”

Loan guarantees will also be provided. “That will help establish production capacity on the ground.”

Berry pointed out that after grain is removed from an acre of rice, the feed stocks to produce 270 gallons of ethanol are left behind.

“That shows the potential of converting cellulose to ethanol. This is something too powerful to ignore. We intend for this research and loan guarantees to begin to establish such (fuel) production.”

Further, bio-fuel production “lends itself to de-centralization. Rather than have a refinery that employs 5,000 in a single, central location and they drive 100 miles to have such jobs, (I envision) a plant in every county with 10 to 100 employees. And these will be good jobs and a positive thing for our communities.”

Late last summer, the USDA announced a GM trait had been found in the U.S. rice supply. Berry, who has many rice-farmer constituents, said he's been in contact with the USDA and APHIS (Animal Plant Health Inspection Service) over the GM rice imbroglio.

“APHIS is doing an investigation to find out how all this happened. That's coming along really slow and it's frustrating.

“Bottom line, though, is (the GM traits are) no risk to anyone, there's nothing wrong with this product.”

Even so, U.S. officials “from the secretary of agriculture to the U.S. trade representative to the president of the United States have all failed the American farmer. And they've certainly failed the rice industry in fulfilling their obligation to protect, when the opportunity presents itself, the producers of this country and make it possible for them to participate in a free and open world market. I'm so disappointed I can't begin to describe it.

“At some point, we're going to have to be responsible to our own industries in this country. Now is the time for that.”