Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, appears to be focusing on the full Senate as the primary venue for writing the new farm bill rather than hashing it out in committee.

Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, has been expressing frustration at his inability to win agreement for significantly revamping the farm bill to make it more conservation and energy-oriented than the legislation passed by the House last July.

Speaking with reporters on his weekly telephone conference call Tuesday (Oct. 2), Harkin was asked about support in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry for “significant” cuts in direct payments, the fixed payments made to all farmers with program crop acreage bases.

“Well, I would say there's never been much support for a significant cut, but I do find some broad areas of agreement for across-the-board reductions that would include cuts in direct payments,” he said.

“Plus, keep in mind, one big hurdle will be getting a bill out of committee. When we get to the floor, a number of senators just don't feel good at all about these direct payment programs. You can anticipate there will be a number of amendments on the Senate floor to revise the direct payment system.”

Asked about earlier reports he wanted to reduce direct payments by $4.5 billion, Harkin said that figure was no longer in play. “We're not looking at anything like that now; that was just my starting point,” he said, adding he now favors a reduction as low as $1 billion to $2 billion.

Noting the ag committee had held four meetings on the farm bill in recent days, Harkin said the committee is “beginning to rally around a basic framework that makes sound investments in our national priorities, provides strong policy and moves our country forward.”

He said the new investments the committee wants to make in agriculture will come from a variety of funding sources, including the Senate Finance Committee tax package.

“I've been in contact with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, and he has indicated the package in his committee will provide additional resources to meet our farm bill funding shortfall,” Harkin said.

The finance committee tax package is expected to provide $9 billion in new funding for agriculture, including $4 billion to $5 billion for the permanent disaster program that Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, has been championing in recent months.

Harkin reportedly opposes a permanent disaster program but may have to accept it as the price of receiving the additional funding, the remainder of which, he said, would go to conservation, energy, rural development and specialty crops.”

Any permanent disaster program would be separate from the revenue counter-cyclical program that Harkin says he supports. He said his chairman's mark may give farmers the option of enrolling in a revenue-based CCP rather than the current price-based counter-cyclical program.

He also expressed some frustration about opposition to increased spending for conservation programs, including the Conservation Security Program he wrote into the 2002 farm bill.

“The forces are at work to cut out conservation funds,” Harkin said. “I can't believe it, but, then again, we'll have to see what happens on the floor — and in the conference committee (that will be held to reconcile the House and Senate farm bills).”

The chairman said he's concerned that maintaining funding for all the conservation programs — from the CSP to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program — is at risk. “But it isn't going to happen on my watch,” he said.

Harkin said he wants another $1.6 billion to spend on the Conservation Security Program.