Senate Democrats, administration disagree over farm spending

Wednesday, February 6th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush's budget has sparked a debate between the administration and Senate Democrats over how much money to spend on farmers over the next five years.

The budget fulfills Bush's promise to support $73.5 billion in new spending over the next decade, but administration officials disagree with Democrats on how quickly the money should be spent.

A Democratic-backed farm bill pending in the Senate would use an estimated $44 billion by 2007, leaving about $30 billion for the remaining five years. Congress would either have to slash farm programs then or approve another increase in spending. A House-passed farm bill would cost $34.6 billion over the first five years.

``They say we need to save this (money) for eight to nine years from now. We need it now,'' Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, told a group of farmers Wednesday. ``We may not need it eight to nine years from now.''

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said Tuesday that the money should be distributed evenly over the 10-year period.

``We feel strongly that we shouldn't front-load a farm bill,'' Veneman said.

Senate work on the farm bill stalled in December, but lawmakers returned to work on the legislation Wednesday afternoon after rival economic stimulus bills were shelved in a stalemate. Debate on the farm bill was expected to last several days.

The administration's budget sets aside $4.2 billion for new farm spending this year and $7.3 billion in 2003, with the remainder of the $73.5 billion spread evenly in the following years. Veneman said the annual spending levels are subject to negotiation.

Democrats said the budget should have earmarked more money for 2002 through 2007. Much of the additional spending they want for that period was earmarked for conservation programs to gain the backing of environmental groups for their bill.

``The president has substantially reduced the money available for agriculture in the first five years,'' said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D. ``Our problem and the problem of farmers at this point is getting through the next year and the next two years and the next thee years.''

The $73.5 billion would represent a 78 percent increase over the spending required by existing farm programs, which expire Sept. 30.

The Bush administration has not taken a stand on two of the thorniest issues left for the Senate: a proposed ban on meatpacker control of cattle and hog supplies, and lower limits on the subsidies that individual farms can receive.

Supporters of the anti-meatpacker legislation say that processors have used their control over cattle supplies to manipulate the prices they pay to producers. The cattle industry is divided over the proposal. Packing industry officials say the ban would it make it more difficult for them to obtain consistent supplies of high-quality beef.

``While there are strong feelings'' in favor of the packer ban, ``there are also strong feelings on the other side,'' Veneman said.