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Democrats Divided Over Farm Bill Changes

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said he
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said he "cannot support a farm bill that ignores the need for reform." (By Martial Trezzini -- Keystone Via Associated Press)

Peterson's draft has been criticized by fellow House Democrats representing farming interests that receive little direct help.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), a senior member of the Agriculture Committee, complained that the bill would provide $465 million in new money over five years to support fruit and vegetable growers.

"That's not even a crumb," he told reporters, adding that unless improvements are made the bill will face a battle on the House floor.

The debate over subsidies is coming in the midst of nearly unprecedented prosperity in U.S. farming. Farm income and the value of farmland and farm assets have been rising, spurred by strong exports and a boom in the demand for corn, which is used to make ethanol.

This week, the Agriculture Department predicted that the value of harvested corn will reach $40 billion this year, up from $22 billion in 2005. The prices of wheat, milk and livestock are at or near record levels.

Bush administration officials say that this is the right time for change because the high prices mean key subsidies triggered by low prices will go unused.

Johanns's plan would expand help for beginning farmers, increase conservation funding and create a new safety net tied to a farmer's revenue rather than to the prices of commodities. It would also deny subsidies to farmers with incomes of more than $200,000 after operating expenses are subtracted. The current ceiling is $2.5 million.

"No one is suggesting that our farmers go cold turkey," said Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Charles F. Conner. But he added that the U.S. government is "not in a position to make payments to anyone in America, regardless of their income status."

On the Agriculture Committee, which is dominated by lawmakers from major farm states and includes some who own farms or ranches, the reform proposals have met strong opposition. And freshmen members from GOP-leaning districts have shown little stomach for bucking the farm bloc.

Space won easily in 2006 after six-term Republican Ney quit Congress and pleaded guilty to charges of influence peddling. But the GOP has targeted Space for defeat in 2008, and four Republicans are bidding for the seat, which is usually a safe one for the Republican Party.

"I think if I were to engage in votes that were detrimental to my district, it would affect me politically," Space said. He represents 4,500 farmers who received about $50 million in subsidy payments between 2003 and 2005, according to USDA records. "It's not about Space saving his own skin, but doing what's right for his constituents," the congressman said.

For Ed Piar, a corn and soybean farmer in Mount Vernon in Space's district, Space is on the right track.

Piar's farm collected nearly $250,000 in government payments between 2003 and 2005, according to the Environmental Working Group. With today's high prices, those payments will be coming down. But Piar remembers how prices tumbled in 1998, leading Congress to approve billions of dollars in additional subsidies. "Who knows what's going to happen two years from now," he said. "It's the 'what if' you have to watch out for."

Morgan is a contract writer for the newspaper and a fellow with the German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan public policy institution that promotes understanding between the United States and Europe.

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