It may have been difficult to tell from the outside looking in, but Chairman Larry Combest said members of a House-Senate conference committee were making progress on resolving their differences on a new farm bill.

Enough progress that Combest at press time reportedly was pushing conferees to complete work by March 19 so the House and Senate could approve a conference report before they break for the Easter recess March 22.

The conference committee, which held its first meeting March 13, was scheduled to meet again on March 15, but the meeting was canceled. Congressional staffers said no one should read too much into that. “If the conferees weren't making progress, they would be getting together and wailing at each other in public,” one staffer said.

The next meeting of the conference committee was scheduled for March 19 and could be a long one if Combest is on target about efforts to complete a bill in time for it to be presented to the House and Senate before they recess on March 22.

Despite Combest's optimism, other leaders were less hopeful the bill could be wrapped up so soon. On March 15, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said he did not expect the bill to be finished before the recess.

“I don't see any reason why they can't continue to make a lot of progress with an expectation that it is still within the realm of possibilities,” said Daschle, who reportedly has a big stake in the farm bill because of pressure from farmers back in South Dakota. “As I say, I don't expect it, but it would be nice.”

Budget issues remain the biggest obstacle to finishing the bill, and the announcement that the Senate bill is $6.3 billion over last year's budget resolution isn't helping. “Chairman Combest instructed the committee staffs to work out a compromise on spending between the titles,” said an observer, referring to the House bill spending significantly more money on commodity programs. “Until the conferees agree to spending levels, negotiations on policy items cannot take place.”

At week's end, a “Dear Colleague” letter signed by 82 House members, including Tom Osborne of Nebraska, Mike Pence of Indiana, Allen Boyd of Florida and Marion Berry of Arkansas, urged conferees to earmark at least $49 billion of the $73.5 in additional funding provided by the budget resolution for commodity programs.

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman also weighed in with a letter to Combest, reminding conference committee members that the administration believes the farm bill funding must follow the budget resolution and be spread over 10 years — two slaps at the Senate bill.

She said the administration also prefers a farm bill that supports farmers without encouraging overproduction and further depressing prices. “The administration continues to support marketing loan rates — an existing counter-cyclical program — that are equivalent to those contained in the House bill,” she wrote.

Noting that the administration supports a “strong, reliable safety net,” she said, “the House bill's increased funding for fixed, decoupled payments ensures farmers a consistent, predictable income safety net while maintaining market-oriented planting flexibility.”