Tentative Farm Bill Deal Reached

House and Senate negotiators went home for Christmas without a deal on the farm bill — including the food stamps on which millions rely. The bargaining has continued ever since. But Friday, a possible deal emerged.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The farm bill is finally coming together on Capitol Hill. It's the law that sets farm policy subsidies and rules for food stamps, among other things. House and Senate negotiators have been haggling over the bill since before Christmas. And today, a tentative deal has emerged.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: At a time when farmers are getting record prices for their crops and the bill at the grocery store checkout goes up every week, you might think lawmakers would take a long, hard look at government subsidies for agriculture. But if they did, the conclusion they reached was one that favors continuing them - pretty much business as usual.

The tentative deal continues the so-called direct payments that subsidize crops such as corn, rice and wheat to the tune of $5 billion a year. Lawmakers also have added a new subsidy, what Congress is calling a permanent disaster fund. It's aimed at drought-stricken parts of the Northern Plains where critics say farmers shouldn't be farming in the first place.

The measure also includes an array of new tax breaks for thoroughbred horse farms and timber growers, among many others. Most of the money in the farm bill goes to nutrition programs, and this bill does increase funds for food stamps and assistance to food banks by some $10 billion. The tentative deal reached by the key players today must still be approved by the dozens of House members and senators who have been working on the compromise, and that won't happen until early next week.

It then must be approved by the full House and Senate before going to the White House, and there its future is unclear. The Bush administration has previously objected to what it considers to be the overly generous farm subsidies that lawmakers were proposing. This week, the White House in fact urged Congress to put aside the measure and simply extend the current bill for another year.

Democrats, however, want the extra food stamp money, and farm state lawmakers from both parties have rejected limiting the direct payments and other subsidies, especially in an election year.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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