Hope was dashed quickly Thursday that the first formal Senate-House conference could end a deadlock on the new farm bill. With the April 18 deadline for forging a new deal looming, the first meeting of the conferees adjourned in less than two hours with little progress and the deadlock remains. The next round of negotiations now depends on if the chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee identify a source of funding for $10 billion – and that source must meet the approval of the White House by not raising new taxes.
The conference is not expected to meet again in public until Monday or Tuesday. In the meantime, the agriculture committees have turned over the funding issue to the House and Senate tax committees to untangle.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., tabled a new offer to the Senate conferees – a proposal he called only "a starting point." That proposal included $5.5 billion in spending over the budget baseline for the bill. The proposed $5.5 billion was offset by savings from adjustments to the way credit card companies are required to report sales in the House offer. The House offer would have eliminated the proposed $4 billion permanent disaster program and a package of tax cuts that brings the total cost of the Senate bill to $12.5 billion over baseline, according to Peterson.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, quickly responded to the House proposal by saying "we agreed to $10 billion (over baseline)." The Senate would not make a counter-offer to the House in the conference with less than the $10 billion in spending.
The Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee do not see eye-to-eye on funding the bill – although both chairmen have agreed to come to the aid of the ag committees. Part of the deadlock arises from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who so far has insisted that the over line funding should be used to pay for domestic nutrition programs, while Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., remains determined to pay for a $4 billion permanent disaster program.
Meanwhile, there was not smooth sailing even for the stripped down $5.5 billion proposal. With veto threats hanging over both the House and Senate farm bills, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner told reporters the Administration remained opposed to using the credit card reporting mechanism to as a "pay-for" in the stripped down House proposal.