Negotiators launch final push on farm bill

WASHINGTON -- House and Senate negotiators Thursday staged their first face-to-face bargaining session over a long-delayed farm bill, whose details are still being crafted in private.

Eight months after the House passed its farm bill version, and four months after the Senate acted, negotiators convened for 45 minutes to start the final, crucial phase of their work.

"I know many of you had doubts we would ever make it to this point," said Rep. Collin Peterson, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the House Agriculture Committee.

With lawmakers now facing an April 18 deadline, the outlines of a final package are already apparent. The bill will devote a record amount to fruits and vegetables, though less than specialty crop producers originally sought.

Commodities such as cotton, rice and wheat will largely retain their current subsidies. Some payment limits will be tightened, though not nearly as much as reformers hoped.

"I think we are probably 80% of the way through the technical issues," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.

The remaining 20%, though, encompasses the toughest questions, including how to pay for new spending and how to craft a new permanent disaster program favored by Midwestern lawmakers. Negotiators expect to meet again by Tuesday to assess progress.

Cardoza is one of 49 House negotiators, named because he chairs the House horticulture and organic agriculture panel. The Senate named 11 negotiators. The sprawling 60-member conference committee is larger than most; the 2002 farm bill, for instance, was written by 48 negotiators.

In theory, the conference committee is where the House's 1,154-page bill and accompanying report is reconciled with the Senate's 1,572-page bill and accompanying report. In practice, the brief public meeting Thursday served essentially a symbolic purpose. A few senior lawmakers positioned themselves with introductory comments, and then adjourned so negotiations could occur at a more discreet, member-to-member and staff-to-staff level.

All told, the farm bill has a five-year price tag of $280 billion. More than half will pay for food stamps and other nutrition programs.

The package outline includes $1.35 billion designated for fruit and vegetable programs, which include block grants to states and specialty crop research.