The Senate Agriculture Committee narrowly approved a budget reconciliation plan that trims commodity program payments by 2.5 percent from 2006 through 2010 and extends the controversial Milk Income Loss Contract or MILC program for two more years.

The plan, which passed by a vote of 11-9, also would allow the U.S. cotton industry to keep Step 2 through next July 31, reduces the amount of an advance direct payment a producer can request and limits spending for the Conservation Reserve, Conservation Security and Environmental Quality Incentives Programs.

The conservation spending reduction of an estimated $1.054 billion prompted acrimonious debate during today’s two-hour mark-up session on the reconciliation package, but the MILC or National Dairy Market Loss Payments program almost proved to be its undoing.

After Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss asked for a roll call vote on the legislation, the tally was nine for and nine against with Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., passing.

Chambliss told Roberts, who had co-sponsored an amendment offered by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, to block the extension of the MILC program that was subsequently defeated, that he had the deciding vote.

Roberts, hesitated, then said, “I don’t want the Budget Committee to write this plan,” before casting his vote with Chambliss for the proposal.

The Committee was working against a deadline of today to send its proposal for cutting agricultural spending by $3 billion over the next five years to the Senate Budget Committee. If it missed the deadline, Chambliss said, the Budget Committee would make the cuts.

“I assure you that those changes would most likely not be in the best interests of American agriculture,” Chambliss said in his opening statement.

Chambliss tried to hold a mark-up session for the reconciliation passage on Oct. 6, but ran into opposition from committee members to a provision in his chairman’s mark that would have reduced spending on food stamps by $574 million. The new proposal contained no reductions in food stamps

Several senators also expressed reservations about shifting funding from commodity and conservation programs to continue the MILC program, which expired on Sept. 30.

“My view is that the food stamp program supports poor families trying to put food on the table and helps farmers by increasing the food purchasing power of those families,” he said. “It is a win-win program for American agriculture.”

The Committee defeated an amendment offered by Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Ohio, that would have replaced the payment limit language in the 2002 farm bill with a provision restricting farmers to a single payment ceiling of $250,000.

After the vote on the amendment, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told the committee that he would not offer his payment limits amendment during the mark-up session, but would bring it up when the legislation reaches the Senate floor.

“I anticipate I will receive 66 votes just like I did before,” he said, referring to a 66-31 vote in favor of stricter payment limits during the Senate vote on the 2002 farm bill. (The provision was removed during the House-Senate conference on the farm bill.)

The voting on the full reconciliation package split mostly along party lines with the Republican majority supporting Chambliss.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., later released a statement explaining she voted against it because of her opposition to "cuts to vital farm assistance programs." "I believe that we must take steps to address our nation’s historic deficit, but that responsibility should not rest disproportionately on the backs of our farmers," Lincoln said. "These agriculture cuts are too heavily weighted to programs vital to working families in rural America, programs that are among the most important to our local communities and the economies they support."

Lincoln said she wants to work with President Bush to address the budget deficit, but "our spending cuts must be fair, requiring the shared sacrifice of all Americans."

The Senate Ag Committee’s proposal would contribute $182 million in fiscal year 2006 and $3.014 billion over the next five years toward meeting the goal of reducing mandatory federal spending by $34.7 billion that was included in the House-Senate Budget Resolution passed last spring.

House Agriculture Committee members reportedly favor deeper cuts in spending than those passed by the Senate Ag Committee today, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee has said he will push for cuts in excess of the $34.7 billion.

The deficit reduction targets passed by the Republican-controlled Congress drew strong rebukes from Democrats on the Senate Ag Committee who said the overall proposal would increase, not reduce the deficit because it also contains tax cuts of $70 billion.

“These cuts couldn’t come at a worse time for agriculture,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, ranking member on the Agriculture Committee. “We’re already looking at a $5 billion drop in farm income because of rising energy costs and then we put this on top of it.”

Harkin also complained that the Conservation Security Program that he authored in the 2002 farm bill takes the brunt of the spending cuts.

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