Not long after the farm bill conference committee was gaveled back in session on Tuesday morning, several key legislators, with the encouragement of their colleagues, headed to a negotiating session of their own. With a Friday deadline looming, Charlie Rangel, House Ways and Means chairman, and Max Baucus, Senate Finance Committee chairman, are attempting to untangle a knot of funding issues outside the main conference. As of Wednesday morning, there’d been no word of their success.

There was progress in other areas. On Tuesday morning, three titles – credit, research and trade – were acted on, or approved. However, the most contentious titles, including nutrition, are yet to be tackled. Until funding for the bill is agreed to, the conference committee is unlikely to push too far ahead with the new bill.

During the meeting, finger pointing continued as legislators sought to find blame for the bill’s late status. House members made clear their displeasure with a Senate plan for $2.5 billion in tax cuts.

Minnesota's Collin Peterson, House Agriculture Committee chairman, even suggested that by passing such tax cuts, legislators would be exposed to claims of bribery. "We see these tax provisions as the equivalent of earmarks, you know, from our perspective as an agriculture committee. Did the Senate buy-off a bunch of senators with taxes? I don't know."

As Rangel and Baucus worked elsewhere, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, lamented the rapidly approaching deadline. How the conference proceeds depends on whether “we have an agreement from the (House) Ways and Means and (Senate) Finance committees. If we do, we’ll plow ahead and begin discussing some of the” more contentious titles.

“But hopefully (those involved in finance discussions in conference) can work through some of these things and bring some proposals to the conference. But I see us being here (Wednesday) afternoon. Thursday, we must be in conference. I know some members want to be at the Mass with the Pope and that’s Thursday morning. We have a lot of work to do. My intention would be to get together Thursday morning and work all day. I have nothing scheduled but this.”

However, “I know these things take a lot of discussion. We may have to be here this weekend. Our constituents … are depending on us to get this done.

“I agree with (House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson): I’m not in for a long-term extension (of current law) and short-term, only to get (a bill) wrapped up.

“But Friday, a decision must be made. The best outcome would be to have it done by Friday. I don’t think that’ll happen. But if we work (Wednesday afternoon), Thursday and Thursday night, we might be able to see some coalescing on Friday and we can go to leadership on both sides and ask for a few days of extension.

“If we don’t have all the agreements wrapped up, we’ll have to meet on Saturday. We’ll just have to do it. That presupposes the (members hashing out funding issues) will come back with (a proposal) we can agree to.”

Peterson said Friday was too late for a decision on another extension of current law. “Whatever we’re going to do – an extension, or whatever – must be decided (on Wednesday). We can’t wait until Friday. We’re not here. And unless we get the bill (completed Wednesday) the president wouldn’t get the bill (in time). The reality is, a decision must be made (Wednesday). I don’t know what it’ll be.”

Peterson also said there had been reports the Bush administration would send Congress a bill “that is a long-term extension of current law. Well, he can do that. He can send us a lot of things.

“He can send it, but I’m against it. If that’s the only alternative he’s giving us, I don’t think we have any choice but to put back a short-term extension, irrespective of where we’re at. If the alternative is a long-term extension, it’s pretty easy for me to decide what to do.” Harkin: “So if there’s an extension, you have to do it on Thursday?” Peterson: “Our people want to do it (Wednesday).”

Harkin: “I’m hopeful (the financing will be done) by (Wednesday). But I don’t know.”

Peterson: “We’ve been hoping since (last) July. Hope springs eternal but they’re wearing us down.”

Harkin: “We’re so close on this! Within a couple of days, we could bring this to a conclusion.”

At that point, Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss said the White House was unlikely to play ball. “In numerous discussions I’ve had with the White House – even as late as this morning – their position has been clear. They weren’t all that excited about giving us the two extensions we’ve already had. Chairman Peterson is exactly right: a long-term extension is not in the best interest of American agriculture.

“While we’re close, there are still critical decisions to be made. If we get (funding) resolved, there are still some policy issues to be decided. Maybe that can be done (Wednesday) or Thursday. But if we go to the White House for a short-term extension, we’ve got to be pretty close (to completion).

“One other point on certain titles … our staffs have been talking about this for five weeks and haven’t made progress. Before we leave here this morning, if the staff needs any direction from us toward concluding the titles, we need make some decisions that move them to a position where they can be closed. Let’s not leave here thinking we’ll leave here and turn it all over to staff again … There are significant issues we need to give staff direction on.”

If any such instructions were given it was only after Sen. Harkin closed the conference until Wednesday afternoon.

email: dbennett@farmpress.com