WASHINGTON President Bush urged Congress on Thursday to break a deadlock on the new U.S. farm law by April 18 and warned he will veto a bill that raises taxes or lacks more stringent crop subsidy rules.
Lawmakers have been stymied for weeks over how to pay for an increase of $10 billion over 10 years. Leaders of the House Agriculture Committee said they will draft a "baseline" bill without new money if there is no breakthrough by Friday.
"If a final agreement is not reached by April 18, I call on Congress to extend current law for at least one year," Bush said in a statement.
Bush said a long-term extension of the outmoded 2002 law is not the best outcome for a farm-policy overhaul but it would give farmers a predictable safety net.
"I have also made it clear that any final farm bill that includes a tax increase or does not include reform will be met with a veto," said Bush.
April 18 is a de facto deadline because that is when a one-month extension of agricultural programs expires.
Farm bills are omnibus legislation that control public nutrition, land stewardship and biofuel programs as well as crop supports. Nutrition would get two-thirds of the money in the new law, now six months overdue and estimated to cost at least $280 billion over five years.
Congress began writing the farm bill a year ago with the goal of adjusting crop support rates, expanding nutrition and land stewardship spending, encouraging use of cellulose in making fuel ethanol and providing more aid to specialty crops. The House and Senate passed bills that also tightened crop subsidy rules but not as much as the White House wanted.
Since the start of the year, the focus has been on setting a spending level for the final version of the bill and how to pay for it. The House bill is $14 billion above the spending baseline and the Senate is more than $20 billion.
"Nobody has shown us the money," said Collin Peterson, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, so the panel will sketch a bill with no new funding during the two-week recess that begins on Saturday.
"We'll do the best we can," agreed Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Republican leader on the panel.
Funds can be shifted among programs, said Peterson and Goodlatte, so nutrition, stewardship, specialty crops and biofuels are enhanced, although not as much as originally proposed. Peterson said crop support rates could be adjusted.
Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said farm leaders would meet on Friday in hopes of reaching a framework on funding, allocations for major programs and policy questions.
A key dispute is whether the Senate Finance Committee will gain some jurisdiction over stewardship programs if it provides $3.8 billion in tax credits for use in lieu of rental payments for land in the Conservation, Wetland and Grassland reserves.
There would not be enough money in a baseline bill to include a $5 billion stand-by disaster program sought by senators from the northern Plains, said a House aide.
"Baseline means there's going to be tough sledding," said Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union. He said spending cuts could be avoided if lawmakers compromise on the bill.
(Editing by Christian Wiessner)