Enough progress that Combest, who is also chairman of the House Ag Committee, reportedly is pushing conferees to complete their work by March 19, the last date he says the committee can act in time for the House and Senate to 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 Friday morning but the meeting was canceled. Congressional staff members said observers should not read too much into that development.

“If the conferees weren’t making nay progress, they would be getting together and wailing at each other in public,” one staffer was quoted as saying.

The next meeting of the conference committee is scheduled for Tuesday morning, 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 are less hopeful the bill can be wrapped up next week. On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle told reporters 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 in his home state of 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, according to Washington observers.

“Chairman Combest instructed the committee staffs to work out a compromise on spending between the titles,” said one farm group lobbyist, 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 conference committee members to ensure that at least $49 billion of the $73.5 in additional funding provided by the budget resolution be earmarked 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.”

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