Sen. Trent Lott likes to reminisce about the time he spent as a child on a cotton farm near Schlater, Miss. But the Senate's top Republican appears to be forgetting his ties to the Delta, judging from comments he made on the Senate floor Nov. 30.

“The Senate bill couldn't be any written any worse,” he said. “This is a disastrous bill. Here we are three weeks from Christmas, and we're tangled up in a bad ag bill.”

Aside from the fact that the senator's countdown to Christmas was a little off, his comments couldn't be more wrong, according to some Mississippi farmers who have supported Lott in the past.

While many growers favor the Farm Security Act of 2001, the House bill, because it would provide a higher target price, they could also live with the Senate bill, which includes a higher AMTA payment than the House version. Few consider either a “bad” bill.

But Lott said that, given the differences between the House and Senate versions and administration opposition, he thought it would be impossible to produce a unified bill by year's end. “We'll have a bill by the time the current law expires (in 2002),” he said.

That will be too late for many growers. Without the price guarantees of the House or Senate bills, lenders from the High Plains to the East Coast say they will be unable to finance many growers for 2002.

In contrast to Lott's stance, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle reportedly told Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the Ag Committee chairman, that he couldn't go home to South Dakota for Christmas without a farm bill.

As Lott and other Republican senators have dug in their heels, the administration has stepped up its rhetoric that both bills encourage higher commodity production, which, in turn, will depress prices. (An analysis by the Food and Agricultural Policy Institute says that is not the case.)

For all its free market platitudes, the administration has had little to say about Delta farmers and others who would be forced out of business by its philosophy. Or the landowners who would see their incomes dry up.

While farm organizations are pressing for the Ag Committee bill, most would be happy to see anything move in the Senate, including the Cochran-Roberts bill that was rejected by the Ag Committee earlier. The latter, co-authored by Mississippi's other senator, contains lower target prices than the Senate Committee bill, but would give leaders something to take to conference.

Administration officials have promised that if Congress will take its time and write a more “thoughtful” farm bill, the $73.5 billion in additional spending for agriculture in the budget resolution will be there for next year.

Besides the fact that the administration has no say on appropriations, farm groups see the promises as disingenuous. “Given the current economic outlook, we'll be lucky to get half that much if we have to wait,” said one leader.

At press time, Daschle was expected to ask for a vote of cloture on the committee bill. If he can get the needed 60 votes, he planned to bring the bill to the floor for debate.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com