Leaders of a House-Senate conference committee simply “ran out of time” in their attempts to agree on a farm bill conference report before Congress departed for its two-week Easter-Passover recess March 22.

Late on March 19, Rep. Larry Combest, chairman of the conference committee, and the chairman and ranking members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees issued a statement saying they had reached an agreement on a framework for speeding up the farm bill negotiations.

But they also announced they would not complete work on the farm bill conference report until Congress returns to work the week of April 9.

The statement followed a day in which the leaders postponed meetings that were to have taken place at 9 a.m., and then at 2 p.m., while they reportedly tried to work out an agreement on spending levels for the farm bill. The statement said:

“Farm bill negotiators today struck agreement on the needed framework to speed negotiations for early April completion of the House-Senate Conference Report,” the statement said.

“This framework allows for incorporating the many policy initiatives within the overall $73.5 billion agreed-upon 10-year farm bill budget. Members of Congress on the Conference Committee expect to be positioned to make the final farm bill decisions in public meetings of the Conference the week of April 9.”

The development was another blow to farmers' hopes that committee members would at least complete a conference report before the recess and help remove the uncertainty that has clouded the farm financial outlook since last December.

“We're a little more desperate,” said an Arkansas farmer on learning of the latest delay in passing a new farm bill. “It's time to plant, but there is no money, there is no farm bill, and nobody will loan any money until there is a farm bill.”

“We just simply ran out of time,” said an aide to one of the conference committee members. “We thought we had an agreement over the preceding weekend, but we ran into some unanticipated problems with the Senate side and it fell apart.”

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said in a statement that USDA could still implement a new farm bill for the 2002 season if Congress will act in early April.

“USDA stands ready to implement a new farm bill this year, and our team has been working on implementation measures during the last few months,” she said. “However, each week that passes makes this formidable task ever more challenging.”

Veneman said the administration was pleased with reports that the conference committee leaders had agreed to a basic framework for farm bill spending that adheres to the $73.5 billion in additional funding Congress had allocated for agriculture in its 10-year budget resolution.

Congressional sources said the new framework provides $48.6 billion for commodity programs, $17.1 billion for conservation, $6.4 billion to restore food stamps to aliens living in the United States and $3.3 billion for research, energy, credit and other programs.

But conference committee members still have to reconcile the differences in spending formulas in the House and Senate bill, including the $6.1 billion overrun that was discovered in the Senate-passed bill after its initial scoring.

The Congressional Budget Office says it initially underestimated the cost of the Senate bill because it assumed farm payments would be made on 85 percent of crop base acres as under the 1996 farm bill rather than on 100 percent as the Senate bill actually spells out.

The new funding levels had barely been leaked when environmentalist groups charged that conference members were short-changing conservation programs by reducing the funding from the $21.3 billion in the Senate-passed bill to the $17.1 billion in the new budget framework.

“This is a major retreat,” said a spokesman for the Environmental Working Group, the organization responsible for much of the anguish farmers have suffered over the farm bill and farm payments this winter. “These programs have been on a starvation diet for over a decade. The commodity programs have been getting a full-meal deal.”

Earlier, Chairman Combest had said he hoped to finish work on the conference report on March 19 so that it would be presented to the full House and Senate and passed before Congress recessed on Friday.

While observers said that was an ambitious schedule, it still seemed within reach until negotiations over the Senate farm bill spending drug on, and Combest, Rep. Charlie Stenholm, the ranking minority member of the House Ag Committee, and Sens. Tom Harkin and Richard Lugar, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Ag Committee, issued their statement.

While farmers were disappointed with yet another delay, others said the two week recess would give conference members and their staffs more time to work out agreements on such contentious issues as the Grassley-Dorgan Amendment, conservation spending, loan rates for program crops or packer ownership of livestock.

Despite the remaining hurdles that must be cleared, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle noted that the agreement “puts us one step closer to enacting a bill that corrects the problems in the 1996 bill.”

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