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Reform an issue in House farm bill

ST. PAUL - A new farm bill proposal nearing a vote in the U.S. House is good for agriculture and for those seeking to reform federal subsidies, said Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota.

"We are moving as far as we can," Peterson, the bill's author and Agriculture Committee chairman, said Tuesday during a Capitol Hill press conference. "We're doing things in this bill that set the stage for further reform."

But some lawmakers say not enough is changing, and the most vocal criticism of Peterson's bill - a package of agriculture, nutrition and conservation programs - could come from fellow rural Democrats.

The House, which is scheduled to vote on the legislation Thursday, is well ahead of the Senate, which has not yet drafted its proposal.

Current farm policy, approved in 2002, expires in September. The bill approved unanimously by Peterson's committee last week funds Department of Agriculture programs ranging from biofuels research to food stamps. It spends an estimated $286 billion over the five-year period, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The legislation continues much of the existing law, which satisfied many farm organizations that have sought to keep a so-called safety net of payments and loans intact. There is increased spending for conservation programs and a plan to fund more renewable energy projects. Reforms were made to farm subsidy payments, such as by lowering from $2.5 million to $1 million the maximum income limit for federal subsidies.

While Peterson and farm bill allies touted the proposal Tuesday, Democratic Rep. Ron Kind of western Wisconsin and other lawmakers seeking a farm bill overhaul unveiled an amendment they plan to introduce during the floor debate. Kind said Peterson's bill contains "loopholes large enough to drive a combine through."

"They failed to address the real problems with our current farm programs: they direct billions in taxpayer dollars to a few but very wealthy producers in a handful of congressional districts at the expense of programs that truly help family farms," Kind said in a statement.

Among other changes, Kind's amendment would lower the annual subsidy limit to only include people earning up to $250,000 and gradually reduce direct payments to farmers.

Adopting the Kind amendment would dramatically alter the legislation and threaten the "fragile balance" of commodity groups, farm organizations and conservationists that are supporting the bill, said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., an Agriculture Committee member.

"What we reached was a compromise," Walz said in a phone interview. "And those who say that it didn't go far enough - they're absolutely right. But the problem is if it goes too far in one direction, you lose the support in the other."

The committee's top Republican, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, predicted the bill will have GOP support. Still, while applauding the bill in general, some Republicans were withholding final judgment.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., commended Peterson's effort but had some reservations, including how a $4 billion increase to nutrition programs would be paid for.

"We have to see how these concerns are met," Kline said in a statement.

There is no funding source identified to pay for a permanent disaster assistance program, a proposal sought by lawmakers from the upper Midwest, where droughts and flooding have hurt farmers.

"It is going to be a problem," said Walz, adding that budget targets limited the committee's spending options. "It may be a casualty."