Staffs of the conferees have been working to whittle down the differences in the House- and Senate-passed farm bills. But controversial issues -- such as payment limits -- can only be settled by the conference members, who will hold their first scheduled meeting at 3 p.m. on Tuesday.

Conference Committee Chairman Larry Combest of Texas has said he wants to finish the farm bill deliberations and produce a conference report that can be passed by both Houses and sent to the president in two weeks.

That will be a tall order even for a Texan given the number of issues that still confront the conferees.

“It is an ambitious schedule, but Chairman Combest has surprised us in the past, and he may do it again,” said the executive director of one farm organization. “We have learned not to count him out until he has exhausted all of his options.”

As members wrapped up their district meetings and prepared to return to face the music in Washington, some of those options appeared to be narrowing given the lateness of the hour.

“I think it comes down to the money at this point,” said Chip Morgan, executive vice president of the Stoneville, Miss.-based Delta Council. “I mean it’s too late to be trying to build base (one of the other issues still pending). There’s no way they can pass a farm bill, get it signed and USDA implement a new crop base policy in time for 2002.”

Morgan said he sees the conference committee taking one of two paths over the next two to three weeks.

“If Mr. Combest comes in and gets the farm bill passed in two weeks – as he has said he would do – then cotton farmers will receive somewhere between a 68- and 74-cent target price on every pound they get,” he said.

“If that doesn’t happen, there’s $7.35 billion in this year’s budget for emergency economic assistance. Either way, you provide help to people out in the country who desperately need it.”

How much longer farmers have to wait for a farm bill decision depends on Combest and the White House, says Morgan. “I think you will be able to tell by the end of April. Either the farm bill will be passed or Chairman Combest will be asking the White House if they agree that it’s time for the economic assistance money.”

Passing the farm bill would be the better option, he says. “If it’s the latter, farmers will receive a payment of 7.5 cents per pound. If you’re getting 58 cents per pound, then you’re at 65.5 cents. But if we get the farm bill, you get 68 cents to 74 cents because of the target price.”

The Grassley-Dorgan payment limit amendment issue may also have to wait on talks between Combest and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Daschle, whose re-election campaign in South Dakota has drawn national attention, has let it be known that he must have the Senate bill’s higher loan rates in a new farm bill.

“The payment limit amendment is one of those key issues that will have to be negotiated side-by-side,” Morgan notes. “It may not be until he gets higher loan rates or knows he can’t get them, but one of the two will have to happen before Grassley comes off the table.”

Even if Daschle agrees to its removal from the farm bill, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., one of the amendment’s authors, has said he will re-introduce the measure. The amendment limits farmers to fixed and marketing loan payments of $275,000 per year and requires USDA to apply the use of commodity certificates to the limit on marketing loan gains.

Two other senators, meanwhile, have been working to increase the pressure on Daschle and Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who also faces a tough re-election bid in 2002, to take out the amendment.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., who led the opposition to Grassley-Dorgan on the Senate floor, and Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., have been seeking signatures on a letter that will be addressed to Daschle and Harkin, both members of the conference committee.

If the Grassley amendment becomes law, the letter notes, many producers will experience sharp reductions in government support payments. It also says that many producers are encountering bankers who are reluctant to provide financing until they can be assured the Grassley amendment will not be in the final bill.

Besides Daschle, Harkin and Sen. Cochran of Mississippi, the other Senate members of the conference committee include Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Richard Lugar of Indiana.

House members include Combest, Charles Stenholm of Texas, the ranking minority member, John Boehner of Ohio, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, Richard Pombo of California, Terry Everett of Alabama, Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Gary Condit and Cal Dooley of California, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, Eva Clayton of North Carolina and Tim Holden of Pennsylvania.

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