The Senate Agriculture Committee, in one of its copyrighted sessions combining home-state symbolism and hard-ball politics, approved legislation yesterday to reshape the federal dairy and tobacco price support programs.
In times past, both of the controversial programs could have consumed hours of debate, but they moved along easily yesterday.
Instead, the Agriculture Committee got caught up by an administration request to freeze farm target price subsidies in 1984 and 1985 but deferred action.
Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) said his stalemated panel would try again next week to reach agreement on the target-price portion of the legislation, but there was no clear sign that his farm-state colleagues were ready to go along with the White House.
And the Reagan administration, stepping up its pressure on the Republican-controlled committee, made clear that it would oppose the dairy support plan unless it also was given the two-year freeze it wants on target price payments--direct income supplements--for producers of wheat, feed grains, rice and cotton.
The Department of Agriculture, whose farm support programs will cost $21 billion this year, is lobbying hard to freeze at fiscal 1983 levels the direct subsidies paid to farmers of those basic commodities.
According to USDA, such a freeze would cut $369 million from an anticipated target price outlay of $3 billion in fiscal 1984 and cut $1 billion or more from fiscal 1985 expenses.
Sen. Roger Jepsen (R-Iowa), a supporter of the freeze, and Sen. Walter D. Huddleston (D-Ky.) added to the complexity of things with an amendment to divert budget savings from the target price freeze into a new farm export promotion program, a move also opposed by the administration.
William G. Lesher, assistant secretary of agriculture for economics, said the department would not buy the export plan. "We're spending $4.8 billion this year on exports," he said. "We want to export farm products as much as the committee does, but we're doing as much as can be done right now."
Lesher added that while the administration wants changes in the dairy program, now costing more than $2 billion per year for surplus milk products, it will support the new plan only if the target freeze is adopted.
The dairy plan, similar to a version adopted by the House Agriculture Committee, would reduce the federal price support paid to farmers and offer them cash incentives to reduce production. The support price, now $13.10 per hundredweight, could drop to $11.60 by mid-1985.
Changes in the tobacco price support program would freeze federal support for flue-cured and burley, the two principal types, for at least two years and would eliminate most leasing and transferring of tobacco allotments as of 1987.
Meanwhile, Helms, fearing a renewed floor fight over the tobacco program that is politically vital to him at home, was working to keep the target price and dairy-tobacco package together. Finally, however, the committee decided to report out dairy and tobacco price supports as one package and then try later to attach the target price freeze.
Along the way, in a session marked by "old-boy" humor and parliamentary stalling by Democrats, the committee agreed to attach a cotton amendment to the dairy price support plan.
Before it was over, visiting Lou Holtz, University of Arkansas football coach, was introduced and given a warm welcome by the panel.