“By Dec. 5 or 6, the Senate will likely be debating a farm bill,” said Hunter Moorhead, agricultural assistant to Cochran, R-Miss. Moorhead spoke by telephone to Delta Council members attending the group’s fall board of directors meeting Nov. 30 in Greenville, Miss.

“It will take a lot of work, but it is certainly possible that we can get a farm bill approved in 2001,” he says. “We’re taking it one step at a time, but we are a lot closer than where most people thought we would be just a few short weeks ago.”

The farm bill debate will begin with Sen. Tom Harkin’s farm bill proposal, which was approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee just before Thanksgiving. That is, if a threatened filibuster by some Senate Republicans doesn’t become a reality.

Cochran is against a filibuster on the measure, according to Mark Keenum, Cochran’s chief of staff. “He wants the bill brought to the floor to begin the debate on farm policy.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle also wants to move forward on the bill reported out of committee, which has since been extensively rewritten, and the South Dakota senator leader intends to bring it to the floor for a vote. The money-saving changes to the bill were mainly made to the dairy section of the legislation.

Moorhead says the original bill that was approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee was over budget. Since its committee approval, changes have been made to the legislation and a new bill (S. 1731) is reportedly within the allowed budget.

“We’d had lots of agreements and some disagreements, but it’s slowly all coming together,” he says. “We’re getting more and more support in the Senate, and we’re hearing more favorable comments for our proposal with each passing day.”

Since the an earlier farm bill proposal written by Cochran and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, failed to receive ag committee approval, Cochran and his staff have redesigned the proposed farm bill policy and were expected to release the new version Dec. 3. “We’re just waiting for the Congressional Budget Office to give its stamp of approval that the Cochran-Roberts legislation is under the budget cap,” Moorhead says.

The Cochran legislation, he says, will provide an AMTA style payment that is fixed over the five-year life of the farm bill. “This bill provides farmers with exactly what they need to go to their lenders and that’s very important.”

“This office will not introduce a farm bill with Cochran’s name on it, that will hurt cotton,” he says. “In addition, we have the President supporting the Cochran-Roberts bill, and I’m afraid that may be the only bill the President will support.”

However, Moorhead says he is confident that the House and Senate committees can, in conference, produce a farm bill that is both acceptable to southern farmers, and can be signed off on by the President.

Failure to pass a Senate farm bill before adjournment, possibly on Dec. 10, would mean that Senate leaders would have to start the process again in January under what is likely to be a much different budget outlook than the current scenario.

Last spring, the House and Senate passed a budget resolution allocating an additional $73.5 billion over the Congressional Budget Office’s baseline for agriculture over the next 10 years.

“There is a lot of concern that if we don’t get a farm bill passed this year, there won’t be enough money available for farm programs,” Keenum says. “We are very pleased to tell you, though, that President Bush has said he will commit himself to the budget Congress has approved for next year, which means the President will honor that amount of money that was allocated.

“If we aren’t able to have a bill in place by the end of 2001, the money will still be available for crop assistance on the 2002 crop, making the previous argument no longer relevant,” he says.

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com