The White House needs to get tough with our trading partners, not our own farmers, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., told members of the cotton industry gathered at the National Cotton Council's 2008 annual meeting in Memphis.

“The administration has pretty much sold us down the river in terms of what they have offered in cuts for our support programs,” Lincoln said of the potential impact of those cuts on U.S. negotiating power in the Doha Round.

“They've done so with the idea that it would press our trading partners to do the same. But our trading partners have said, ‘No, you take the cuts in your support programs, we're going to keep ours.’

“In most trade negotiations, we're still seeing other countries that don't want to talk about opening their markets, even though we're opening our markets to all of their commodities.

“I just can't believe that's where we want to go. How do we sit down rationally and negotiate with other countries in these trade agreements if the other countries already know that our administration wants to cut the legs out from under (our own commodity programs). You have to have a pretty tough poker face for that.

“We need to press upon the administration that they need to come our way on this farm bill to insure that we are going to have a voice in trade negotiations. We have to be strong about it. We have to be tough.”

It's possible that WTO ministerial rounds could begin in April, with the aim of concluding the Doha Round in 2008.

Lincoln believes that the House and Senate can work out their differences on a farm bill, although there is the looming threat of a presidential veto.

“My hope is that the White House will be rational. But there is a line in the sand, and that's what they want. But quite frankly, once they get into it and realize the tremendous reforms already in this package, we'll be able to get some common sense out of them.

“We will continue to impress upon Chairman Peterson that the Senate-passed bill contains significant reforms. I know he has been kind of partnered up with the White House to say that more reforms can be had. But it is imperative that over the next few weeks that the conference finalizes the bill with little change. I think we can do that, but we are going to have to fight hard.”

Several days after Lincoln addressed the NCC group, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson said he and the committee's ranking member had developed a farm bill with only $6 billion in new spending that President Bush will sign.

Peterson, D-Minn., and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said the new approach is needed so a House-Senate committee can complete a farm bill conference report, have it pass both houses of Congress and be signed by the president before an extension of the current farm law expires March 15.

But major farm organizations say the Peterson-Goodlatte proposal is “seriously under-funded,” and contains provisions supported by the administration that were previously rejected by the House and Senate agriculture committees.

Lincoln agrees that time is running short. If Congress doesn't get farm bill legislation passed “before the next budget comes out, the first area that will take a hit are commodities. We always lose the most.

“Another problem is that the budget rules for the Senate and the House are different. The House has a rule that its budget baseline changes at the end of this month (February) if we don't do something. We also have March 15, when the farm expires and we go back to 1949 law. I don't think anybody wants to do that.

“The two bills (House and Senate) make sense,” Lincoln says. The Senate bill “has overwhelming support in the U.S. Senate. There's no reason why we can't come up with something unless the administration continues to put this veto threat out there.

“We need to stay focused on what we need to do and take advantage of the bi-partisanship in the different regions and the good reform that's in the bill and the things we've added to, like conservation, nutrition and rural development.”