WASHINGTON The senior negotiators from the House and Senate said they accommodated many White House proposals for farm subsidy reform on Tuesday in preparing the new U.S. farm law for a final series of votes.
"We have an agreement amongst ourselves on a bipartisan basis," said House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson, Minnesota Democrat.
Congress could send the farm bill, seven months past due, to the White House for enactment as early as next week, said Peterson. Lawmakers would have to approve a stopgap bill later this week to keep agricultural programs running until then.
President (George W.) Bush criticized the $610 billion farm bill earlier in the day. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer met negotiators for two hours to spell out the administration's goals, such as an end of crop subsidies to the wealthiest Americans.
"We have moved considerably on reform," said Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin, who is in charge of the farm bill talks. The Iowa Democrat said a public meeting of the six dozen negotiators was possible on Wednesday to iron out the final details.
Meeting in private throughout Tuesday, senior negotiators acted on crop subsidy rules, land stewardship programs, language to prevent abuse of price supports and whether fruit and vegetables will continue to be barred on land eligible for crop subsidies. Harkin and other leaders said they would not discuss details until they briefed other negotiators.
"There is more reform in here than there was this morning," said Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Republican leader on the House Agriculture Committee. He said some issues remained but did not list them.
For months, the administration has urged an income cutoff point for access to crop subsidies -- $500,000 in adjusted gross income if Congress adopts broad-scale reform or as low as $200,000 AGI if there was little reform. Farm-bill negotiators did not want any limit on income from farming although they proposed a cap of $500,000 or $750,000 for off-farm income.
"We did move toward the White House -- big time," said Harkin when asked about the issue. The Republican leader on the Senate committee, Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, said there was significant reform. Like Harkin, he declined to be specific.
Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, said Schafer pressed for action on 10 items identified in February. They included tighter eligibility rules for crop subsidies, no increase in crop subsidy rates, deletion of a proposal to sell surplus sugar to ethanol makers and removal of the so-called planting prohibition on fruit and vegetables.
Canada filed a complaint last year-- the first broad-scale challenge to the U.S. farm program-- saying the prohibition is a trade-distorting subsidy that violates world trade rules.
(Reporting by Charles Abbott; editing by Carol Bishopric)