Nussle’s promise was made in exchange for the support of Reps. Larry Combest, R-Texas, and Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., and other farm-state congressmen for the House FY 2004 Budget Resolution that would provide $726 billion in tax cuts over 10 years sought by President Bush.

Combest, former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee who is retiring from Congress later this spring, switched his nay vote to a yeah, providing one of the three votes for a 215-212-vote margin of victory early on March 21. Republican members were under pressure not to hand the administration a defeat at the start of the Iraq War.

"You have expressed your deep concern about the amount available for agriculture in the House Budget," Nussle wrote in a letter to Emerson following the vote. "In the Conference with the Senate, I will bring the level of mandatory spending for agriculture (Function 350) for the fiscal year ’04, and for the period of fiscal years ’04-08, up to a level which will not require any reductions from the CBO baseline levels."

The Senate, which was unable to complete work on its FY 2004 Budget Resolution as planned on March 21, was scheduled to resume debate on the non-binding legislation March 25 with plans to vote on March 26.

Farm groups’ view

Farm organization leaders, who had written letters urging the House to reject the farm bill cuts, hailed the efforts of Combest and Emerson and Nussle, an Iowa Republican.

"Farm Bureau is grateful to Combest and Emerson for standing up for agriculture," said Bob Stallman, Farm Bureau president and a rice farmer from the Texas Gulf Coast. "There is never a good time to reduce support for our farmers and ranchers. But with continuing hardship in the farm economy, weather disasters and growing demands for farmers to produce more while protecting the environment, there couldn't be a worse time to cut farm programs."

Working into the early hours March 21, the House passed a 2004 Budget Resolution that would cut funding for agriculture programs by $18.6 billion, or about 10 percent, over the next 10 years. Farm spending would be reduced by $600 million in the 2004 fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1, 2003, and $5.2 billion between 2004 and 2008.

Nussle indicated in his letter to Emerson that he would work to achieve savings through other means. "It is my intention to work with the Agriculture Committee to ensure that the level of savings the Agriculture Committee is required to achieve is attributable to waste or fraud, with no negative impact on farm programs or crop insurance," Nussle wrote.

"While Farm Bureau recognizes that Congress must pass fiscally responsible legislation and work to reduce the federal budget deficit, to place the burden of balancing the budget on the backs of hardworking farmers and ranchers would be kicking them when they are already down," Stallman said.

In passing its Budget Resolution, the House rejected alternatives offered by Blue Dogs, the Congressional Black Caucus and a Democratic alternative crafted by Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., ranking member of the House Budget Committee.

Cuts impact

During floor debate, Rep. Tom Osborne, R-Neb., also expressed concern about the impact cuts would have on the effectiveness of new farm law. Nussle also assured Osborne that the Agriculture Committee would be credited with savings achieved by eliminating fraud, waste and abuse from programs under the committee’s jurisdiction.

The Budget Resolution under consideration by the Senate would reduce farm program spending by a minimal amount compared to the House version. But it also contains payment limit language offered by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, that would eliminate the three-entity rule and the use of generic commodity certificates.

e-mail:flaws@primediabusiness.com