There was no farm bill conference on Wednesday, April 23, but plenty was going on behind the scenes, promised conferee Sen. Blanche Lincoln.
“There are a lot of small, behind-the-door meetings going on,” said the Arkansas senator and member of the Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday afternoon. “Those have proven to be pretty productive so we want to keep them going.”
With Congress facing a Friday deadline for the bill, the senator said a two-week extension of current law would be proposed. Lincoln was correct, but on Thursday, only a one-week extension passed the Senate.
The bill still has “funding issues being worked through. Of course, along the way, we've been trying to deal with technical issues in the bill. But it's hard to get people to commit on some of the technical issues until they know the funding is available …
“Maybe tomorrow (Thursday), there will be a conference meeting … At that point, hopefully we'll go back to the titles and clear the outstanding issues. There's no doubt we must resolve the funding first.”
During the Tuesday conference, a letter from President Bush decrying the farm bill's progress and composition was read. In it Bush called for a one-year extension of current law. Did Sen. Lincoln know about the letter before the conference began?
“No. They delivered that at the last minute and laid it on everyone's desk.
“The president has been less than engaged in this and less than helpful in coming up with solutions. Every concern the (Bush) administration has brought to us, we've tried every which way to resolve. We've bent over backwards to deal with (its demands) on reform and funding and a host of other things.”
The letter “was more threatening than it needed to be.”
Bush's letter made no absolute statement that he wouldn't allow another extension of current law. How hard will it be to get the White House to sign off on another short-term extension?
“Who knows? But even if the president doesn't agree to sign an extension, we'll go to 1949 law … and most people tell us that even if we do revert to 1949 law, it'll take at least two or three months before USDA could actually implement it.
“The two weeks of breathing room we need are (largely to deal) with the mechanics of putting the bill together - physically putting the bill together. I don't know that it really matters if he signs the extension, or not.”
Like many colleagues in Congress, Sen. Lincoln has been critical of the Bush administration's approach to a new farm bill. Her position hasn't shifted.
“They've had all kinds of different perspectives, quite frankly. At one point they've wanted an extension (of current law). At another point, they wanted a baseline bill. At another, they wanted $6 billion above baseline.
“We've tried to stick with what was negotiated in the Senate - a very good, bipartisan, responsible bill. It had tremendous reform, more reform than ever. We (increased funds) for areas like nutrition and conservation.
“We tried to keep intact a very productive, successful commodities title even with the reforms. Prices are good now, but in two years who knows where they'll be?
“We must keep in mind that we're not just writing a bill for this cropping year, but for crops years down the road. And no one knows what (conditions) will be like then.”
The bill's recent halting progress and skirmishes between the House and Senate only developed in the last few months, pointed out Lincoln. Bipartisanship has never been a problem - 82 senators voted for the Senate's farm bill proposal.
And she's unimpressed with claims the Senate tax package is a deal killer.
“It's amazing how people suddenly thought the (Senate's) tax package was a secret. We had marked it up last September and went through the regular committee sequence.
“For some reason, the House has had great consternation over this tax piece … One comment out of the House was ‘we sent (the Senate) a farm bill and they sent us a tax bill back.’
“No, (the House) sent us a revenue bill and we looked at how to complement some of the things people wanted to do by providing incentives instead of just giving away money.”