They used to say that here in sweltering Tangipahoa Parish, you were either a preacher's kid, a principal's kid, or you milked cows. Kenneth Champlin milked cows -- hand to udder, on his grandaddy's farm, every morning before dawn. Dairy farming is an every-morning thing.

Today, Champlin is a grandaddy himself. His son Clifford runs the family's 437-acre farm. Subdivisions have sprouted on the neighboring farms; this parish in the "Cream Pitcher of the South" has lost four-fifths of its dairies since the 1950s. Louisiana is now forced to import milk in the summer, when its overheated cows dry up before calving. And Champlin has started telling his grandsons to find a new line of work. "Dairy's dying around here," he says.

This week, Congress will engage in an East-West civil war over the price of milk, a battle of pure regional politics that will shape the future of thousands of dairymen like Champlin. The battle will ultimately determine whether dairy farming vanishes from states like Louisiana. The otherwise entrenched partisanship on Capitol Hill will melt like butter on a griddle, put aside for an issue that has pitted Democrats against Democrats, Republicans against Republicans, and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton against her husband.

The nation's 60-year-old milk-pricing system was designed to keep dairies alive in every section of the nation, to make sure all Americans "got milk" -- and got it fresh. But as the industry has consolidated, small dairies have become an endangered species anyway, especially in the Southeast and Northeast. On Oct. 1, the byzantine system will expire, and unless Congress acts first, the Clinton administration will replace it with a simpler and somewhat more market-oriented regime that will only intensify the pressure on eastern farmers.

So politicians from the dairy-thin eastern regions are scrambling to preserve and expand protections for their struggling dairymen, and to boost prices further through regional milk cartels known as "dairy compacts." Congressmen from the Midwest and far West are pushing to level the national playing field for milk prices, hoping their farmers will then seize control of even more of the nation's $75 billion dairy industry.

The regional alliances have created some odd bedfellows. In the Senate, for example, northeastern liberals like Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) have joined forces with southern conservatives like Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) against the Clinton plan. Not only do they have support from the first lady, but from her likely Senate opponent, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) -- even though his city administration opposed dairy compacts before he started looking at statewide office. On the other hand, midwesterners ranging from Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) to Sen. Rod Grams (R-Minn.) to Reform Party Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota are supporting the administration plan.

Of course, the results of this battle will affect consumers as well as farmers, not to mention the powerful dairy processing industry, which has been distributing pamphlets featuring little babies begging Congress not to raise their milk prices. Consumer groups predict that the eastern price-boosting plans would cost grocery shoppers nearly $1 billion annually.

"The stakes are incredibly high," said economist Allen Rosenfeld, a consultant for the dairy processing industry. "The question is, should government policy be aimed at keeping some inefficient dairy farmers in business, or should it be trying to protect consumers?"

In the past, the goal of federal policy was to encourage farmers to milk cows all over the country, to ensure a nationwide supply of fresh milk. This was the point of the "Eau Claire system," which boosts prices for dairy farmers in rough proportion to their distance from the dairy capital of Eau Claire, Wis. And since price supports can lead to overproduction, the government has often stepped in to buy surplus butter, cheese and even dairy herds -- $17 billion worth during the 1980s.

But in 1996, the Republican "Freedom to Farm" law directed the Agriculture Department to create a more market-oriented system by this year, setting the stage for a two-front battle this month. On Tuesday, the House will take up a bill that would preempt the department's new price plan with an Eau Claire-style formula more generous to eastern farmers. Meanwhile, a House-Senate committee hashing out the nation's farm budget is expected any day now to deal with regional dairy compacts, an even more contentious effort to prop up eastern farmers.

The compacts are perhaps the best example of the odd politics of dairies. The Northeast Dairy Compact, created in July 1997 to boost milk prices for New England farmers, is set to expire along with the rest of the national controls. But Leahy and Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.) are desperate to extend the compact, which empowers representatives of the six participating states to set milk policy for the region, including minimum prices.

Their problem is, six states do not make much of a coalition. So they are also pressing to expand the Northeast Compact to six new states, including Maryland, and to authorize a new Southeast Dairy Compact, which would include at least 13 more states, including Virginia. They have threatened to hold up the entire farm budget until they succeed.

"We can't guarantee that dairy farmers will all be millionaires," Leahy said, "but we should make sure they get a predictable price for their milk."

Supporters of the compacts say the free market won't work in the dairy industry, because milk is so perishable. Dairy farmers cannot stockpile milk, the argument goes, so they are especially vulnerable to major price drops. This spring, for example, the price of milk dropped 40 percent in a month, the steepest plunge in history; Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom predicts that without new federal help, fewer than 100 of the state's 493 farms will be in operation next year.

Pretty soon, Odom warns, there could be no dairy farming whatsoever in Louisiana, as a chain reaction of failing feed dealers and other dairy support businesses would make the economics impossible. Then the state would have to import milk all year long, instead of just during the summer. And that would hurt southern consumers, who would either have to settle for reconstituted milk -- which dairy farmers dismiss as "tired milk" or "milk sludge" -- or would have to pay higher prices to get fresh milk trucked in daily.

"It's the worst I've ever seen it right now, and I am scared to death of next year," said Odom, who has been commissioner for two decades. "People can't make any money with these prices. I want to tell them to stick with it, but I can't do that in good conscience."

Compact opponents paint a different portrait of the industry. Although America has lost two-thirds of its dairy farms since 1975, they note that nation's milk production has tripled during that time, thanks to better technology and increased efficiency. Sure, they say, milk prices plummeted this spring, but they fell from historic highs, and they have already begun to rebound. Meanwhile, dairy farmers actually benefit from the depressed prices in the rest of the farm sector, which allow them to buy cheap feed.

The opponents say cartels are unfair to more efficient dairy farmers in the Midwest, where feed is more accessible and the weather is cooler. They ask why the government should prop up failing dairies, as opposed to convenience stores or computer-chip factories. And they say the Eau Claire system of different prices for different regions makes no sense now that milk can be transported long distances without spoiling. "It's just not the way we do business in America," said Kohl.

Rosenfeld warns that if Congress approves compacts in the Northeast and Southeast, a new round of overproduction in those regions will fuel demands for renewed government buyouts, price supports and even more compacts. "It's crazy moo-doo economics," he said. "But if the Midwest finds that it can't beat 'em politically, it's going to try to join 'em. The whole cycle will begin again."

Those hard-nosed arguments smack headlong into romantic notions of American dairy farmers, recently described by the first lady as "the hardest-working people in America." Clifford Champlin says the work is not so much hard as it is long, but it certainly is a unique way of life. Champlin knows each of his 230 cows by sight; he knows by heart how much milk she produces, when she's due to give birth, who her parents were. He has a rocking cow in his kitchen, a wooden cow on his mantle, a cow mailbox, a cow clock.

"I'd love to do this the rest of my life, just like my daddy and his daddy," said Champlin, brushing a pair of lovebugs away from his leathery face. "But if I'm losing money, and they lower the price more, well, it don't take a scientist to see what's gonna happen. . . . Maybe that's okay with the politicians. But if they want people like me to stick with this, they better do something quick."

CAPTION: PROTECTING DAIRY FARMERS (This graphic was not available)