(Recasts, updates with lawmakers looking at farm law without new funds)
By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON, March 12 (Reuters) - The new U.S. farm law may shortchange programs from food stamps to land stewardship and crop supports by billions of dollars because Congressional leaders have not come across with a promised $10 billion increase, farm committee leaders warned on Wednesday.
“We have to have a plan in place that is workable,” said the House chairman, Collin Peterson, after four House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders met for an hour in the Capitol. The funding gap was a key topic.
Democratic leaders in Congress decided on Feb. 26 to seek a $10 billion increase over 10 years for the new law. But there is no agreement yet on funding and time is running out to enact a new law, nearly six months overdue. The funding level will be decided by the House and Senate tax committees.
The agriculture leaders said they were looking at a “baseline” bill with no new funding as a fallback. “That’s certainly something that has to be considered,” said Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Republican leader on the House Agriculture Committee.
A baseline bill would mean billions of dollars less than now proposed for public nutrition, land stewardship, biofuels and specialty crop programs. Proponents say a farm bill cannot pass Congress unless it spends more on those popular programs. It was unclear how money would be allocated in a baseline bill for crop supports, nutrition or other programs.
Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, said money could be shifted within the bill so popular programs got increases from current levels but they would not be as large as proposed in House and Senate farm bills passed last year.
The omnibus farm bill would oversee about $600 billion over 10 years with two-thirds of it going to public nutrition. Farm bills cover crop supports, nutrition, exports, stewardship, agricultural research, biofuels and rural development.
“A baseline bill written by us will be a lot better than current law,” said Peterson, Minnesota Democrat. An extension of the 2002 law would erase all gains for nutrition, stewardship, biofuels and specialty crops.
If farm leaders agree soon on a likely funding level, they can work during the upcoming two-week recess on policy issues like payment limits, said Peterson.
As a stopgap, the Senate passed a bill on a voice vote on Wednesday to extend agricultural programs until April 18 while Congress works on the new law. The House was expected to approve the one-month extension later on Wednesday.
Harkin said proposals for tighter limits on crop subsidy payments would be “totally up in the air” if a baseline bill becomes the vehicle. Similarly, the future of $5.2 billion paid annually to growers in so-called direct payments would be an open question, he said.
Eleven members of the Senate Agriculture Committee were named weeks ago as negotiators with the House on the farm bill. Some of them objected this week to being left out of potential deal-making on the bill. So far, only Harkin and Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the panel’s Republican leader, have participated in talks with with Peterson and Goodlatte. (Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by David Gregorio)