Higher crop subsidies were the main target of President Bush’s criticism of the Senate Farm Bill on Wednesday. He contends that higher crop subsidies could stimulate overproduction of grain and cotton, thus lowering prices.

Bush says he supports ``generous but affordable' farm legislation that would provide farmers with an adequate safety net without encouraging them to overproduce. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman contends the Senate bill would raise subsidy rates as much as 20 percent.

Veneman also raised concerns about proposed new subsidy programs that are in both the Senate bill and House-passed legislation. The payments, triggered when commodity prices fall below certain levels, could exceed U.S. subsidy limits in an international trade agreement, says Veneman. If that were to occur, the bills would require the department to cut payments.

Bush has not threatened to veto either bill. Although some senators believe the administration's criticism makes it more difficult to reshape subsidy programs that expire next year. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) wants to bring the farm legislation to a vote by next week so negotiators can work out a compromise with the House before Congress breaks for Christmas.

Some farm groups are concerned that there will be less money available for their subsidies if Congress waits until next year to reauthorize the programs.

After Bush’s speech, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer suggested that farmers should fall in line behind the economic stimulus package on which Bush is demanding action by the Senate.

``On the Farm Bill ... the president thinks the timing is odd in the Senate. At a time when all Americans need help, why is the Senate abandoning all Americans and focusing only on one segment of America, even if it's a segment as important as farmers?' says Fleischer.

The administration favors a GOP Farm Bill that has lower subsidy rates and would provide assistance to a broader range of farmers. The Republican plan would set up subsidized IRA-style savings accounts that would let farmers sock away income in good years to use when crops or prices are poor. Critics of the savings plans say farmers don't have spare income to put into them.
Existing farm programs do not expire until October 2002, but Daschle says growers need the assistance that would be provided by the Senate bill. He also raised concerns about whether USDA would have time to write rules for new programs if Congress doesn’t pass new legislation.

Democrats forced their bill through the Senate Agriculture Committee earlier this month after giving Southern senators more money for big farms and adding a dairy program that could raise retail milk prices. The measure faces a series of amendments on the Senate floor, including the GOP subsidy plan and a move by environmentalists to shift billions in crop subsidies into conservation programs.

Veneman also criticized the new dairy program in the Senate bill that would fix the prices producers receive for a portion of their milk.

Both the Senate bill and one passed by the House in October would cost about $170 billion over the next 10 years; the ceiling set in this year's congressional budget agreement. The Senate legislation would have to be renewed in five years.

Associated Press