The long Senate nightmare on the farm bill appears to be ending with committee action scheduled next week on a deal that Chairman Tom Harkin described Wednesday as drawing "broad bipartisan support." He reported the deal has been agreed to by the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Sen. Kent Conrad D.-N.D., who chairs the budget committee and is a senior Democrat on the agriculture committee.
The breakthrough apparently came when the Congressional Budget Office assigned a $3 billion savings to a proposal to offer farm program participants an option, beginning in 2010, to choose between traditional farm programs or a state-level revenue assurance program, an insurance program that provides income coverage when either yields or prices fall. Under his proposal, participants in farm programs would be allowed to plant non-program crops. Coupled with savings provided earlier this month by the Senate Finance Committee, Harkin said his "chairman's mark" next week will offer $4 billion in new funding for conservation programs. Of that, $1.28 billion is earmarked for the Conservation Security Program, which Harkin plans to rename the "Conservation Stewardship Program." Even though the House bill has no funding for the program, Harkin noted his bill is fully funded and theirs is not. "They will have to come our way" in the Senate-House conference, he predicted. Harkin projects the CSP, which provides "green payments" for conservation practices on working lands, will grow by 13 million acres through the life of the five-year bill.
His proposal also calls for spending $1.2 billion for farm-based energy production — particularly biomass production for cellulosic biorefineries. And, likely as an offset to lifting the plant prohibition, Harkin said funding for fruits and vegetables is "a signature" of the new farm bill in the sense that the energy title was in the spotlight in the 2002 farm bill. The farm bill would expand the current pilot program for school snacks of fruits and vegetables to a nationwide program.
Harkin also is the subcommittee chairman for the Labor, Health and Education appropriations subcommittee. That spending bill is being debated on the Senate floor and may continue through the weekend. He told reporters the agriculture committee will markup the farm bill as soon as the Senate completes the labor bill. Harkin predicted committee action could begin Wednesday, but certainly by Thursday.