Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran threw down the gauntlet to those who would reopen the 2002 farm bill, saying he would fight any efforts to make changes in farm bill payment limits.

Speaking at the National Cotton Council's annual meeting in Washington on Jan. 31, Cochran said he will “work as hard as I can to oppose any changes” in the rules limiting farm program payments.

His comments appeared to put him on a collision course with Bush administration officials, who reportedly are considering new payment limitations as part of agriculture's contribution to achieving the president's goal of cutting the federal deficit in half before the end of the decade.

Reports in Washington say the president's fiscal 2006 budget proposal will include changes in the eligibility requirements for Commodity Credit Corp. loan rate and counter-cyclical payment programs, extension of the Milk Income Loss Contract program at a lower rate and reductions in limitations on farm program payments.

“We always know there's a threat of lower levels of payments to producers from some in the Congress,” said Cochran, who recently became chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee after serving as chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

Cochran didn't mention names but could have been referring to Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who have led several attempts to apply stricter payment limitations to farm programs.

“This farm bill is working as it was designed to work and payments are going down because prices are going up, and I will continue to work as hard as I can to oppose any changes in the farm bill payment limits to producers,” said Cochran.

The statement drew a sustained round of applause from members of the seven segments of the cotton industry attending the meeting. Of the major commodities, cotton and rice appear to have the most to lose from tighter payment limits because of higher input costs for those crops.

Washington sources say administration budget officials are still discussing where the budget axe will fall on farm programs, but that they are working toward a goal of $15 billion in savings over the next 10 years.

Grassley has said his new payment regulations would save from $1 billion to $2 billion in farm program spending over the remainder of the 2002 farm bill, which is scheduled to expire in 2007.

In his speech to its members, outgoing Chairman Woody Anderson said the NCC will continue to fend off efforts to change the 2002 farm bill and payment limit rules, in particular.

“The Council's biggest and most consistent battle since passage of 2002 farm legislation has been protecting it against attacks from those who want to dismantle it, especially its cotton provisions,” said Anderson, a producer from Colorado City, Texas.

“As usual, the program had to be protected from efforts to single out agriculture for disproportionate cuts as Congress wrestled with a worsening budget deficit. There were the usual efforts to impose stricter payment limits. And, as always, there were media attacks on the cotton program, driven by continuing, misleading allegations of the Environmental Working Group.”

Anderson said there will be no shortage of challenges for agriculture and cotton in the coming year, but that Cotton Council leaders will be joining Cochran and other farm-state senators in fight for a “fair and equitable budget for agriculture.”

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