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Conrad rebuts Schafer/Bush farm bill criticism

BISMARCK--Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., has accused the Bush administration of "smoking something" and engaging in "the pot calling the kettle black," because of the president's threat to veto the new farm bill.

A House-Senate conference committee reached agreement Thursday on the latest version of a farm bill and it could be voted on by both houses on Wednesday.

Former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer, now Bush's secretary of agriculture, blasted it as containing no farm subsidy reform and containing increases in taxpayer assistance to farmers while they are enjoying record income.

Conrad called a telephone news conference Friday to issue a seven-page rebuttal, "Rhetoric vs. Reality," to the administration's criticisms, calling them "highly misleading."

Schafer said Thursday after the deal was reached, and reiterated Friday, that he has visited face-to-face with Bush and "the president will veto this bill."

Conrad said the administration's statement that the bill increases subsidy rates at a time of record crop prices is "one of the most egregious claims... That's just wrong."

Even with the addition of a new permanent disaster program, the farm safety net is taking a net hit of $3.5 billion, Conrad said and it was the administration that proposed spending $5.5 billion more on direct payments.

"If ever there was a case of the pot calling the kettle black, this is it," Conrad said.

Conrad said the bill's increases in loan rates and target prices for crops will only cost money if prices collapse. For instance, wheat currently sells at about $8 per bushel. The bill increases the wheat loan rate from $2.75 to $2.94 and the target price from $3.92 to $4.17. So, under current conditions, farmers will receive neither a loan deficiency payment nor a countercyclical payment, Conrad said.

He also took issue with the Bush administration's claim that the bill represents no reform in farm subsidy programs.

"Anyone who says this isn't substantial reform is smoking something," Conrad said. For instance, for producers to qualify for disaster assistance, they have to show loss on their total operations, not just losses on one part of their operations as is now the case. And farmers will have to have bought crop insurance in order to be eligible for disaster aid.

Conrad also said the farm bill is more of a food bill than a farm bill, because 67 percent of the funds go to nutrition programs, while only 14 percent go to farmers and ranchers and 9 percent goes to conservation programs.

One farm state senator, Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, has blasted the bill as "larded down with pork. It's just a bad bill."

Conrad said, "He's very much alone."