They stared and stared but nobody would blink and the congressional conferees working on a new farm bill broke up yesterday in distinct but good-humored disagreement.
The conference, apparently not much more than a wink-and-a-nod from a final agreement when it convened, collapsed in disarray over the cost of the dairy and grain support programs.
The bill is estimated to have a four-year cost of about $11.2 billion--that is, $681 million above the Senate's $10.6 billion version that the White House wants adopted.
Senate delegates, following White House urgings, insisted on more cuts, but the House refused and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), conference chairman, declared an impasse and recessed the panel until Dec. 2.
"We are reasonably near a compromise . . . but we've stonewalled it on the dairy and there's been a pretty good stonewall on the grain target prices," Helms said. "These are the two areas where we need to make more cuts."
His House counterpart, Rep. E (Kika) de la Garza (D-Tex.), protested impishly that "the word stonewalling comes from an era when illicit matters were covered up . . . . We've worked here in good faith to get things done."
"I was thinking of Stonewall Jackson," Helms quipped back at him.
Helms earlier had proposed that the conferees alter their previous agreement on dairy price supports, which would cost an estimated $151 million more than the Senate version.
The Republican-controlled Senate, on a 5-to-4 party-line vote, accepted Helms' proposal to limit any given year's cost of federal dairy supports to $1 billion. But the House rejected the proposal 12 to 2.
Senate conferees also pushed for lower target prices, which determine direct subsidies paid to farmers, for wheat, corn and other feed grains. The House, having accepted lower rates earlier, refused to give in any more.
The administration, which had sought in vain to have target prices removed from the bill, has contended that the higher payment levels will encourage overproduction of basic grains and lead to unacceptably large payments to growers over the four-year life of the bill.
While there was no movement on dairy or grain, peanut advocates accepted still another change in their support program under a threat of parliamentary challenge by Rep. Paul Findley (R-Ill.) on the House floor.
"Same song, second verse," said Rep. Charles Rose (D-N.C.), the chief peanut defender, as he bowed to Findlay. "It could be better, but it's getting worse."
Rose agreed to reduce the support price from the earlier agreed upon $580 a ton to $550, a move that Findlay said would benefit consumers, and accepted further reductions in the poundage quotas that current peanut growers would be allowed.
Findlay, cautioning that the bill faced further floor trouble over sugar prices, moved that the support level be cut from 17.5 cents a pound to 16.5 cents. That didn't fly, but the conference adjourned with another proposal for 17 cents still on the table.
The House conferees plucked another discordant note when they voted to reverse an earlier position giving farmers special federal aid if their grain is stored in bankrupt elevators.
That language had been inserted by Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), but de la Garza said that it was objected to strongly by the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over bankruptcy matters.
De la Garza said that Judiciary Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) had promised elevator bankruptcy hearings and legislation, but Dole wouldn't budge, and the conferees were deadlocked again.