The sparring has begun.

In a budget hearing Wednesday Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman delivered the message that the Bush Administration wants the $73.5 billion in increased Farm Bill spending spread out “relatively evenly” over 10 years.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin pressed for a definition.

“I don't know what relatively means,” exclaimed Harkin. “Help me. Help me.”

Veneman’s response was that “it doesn't have to be exact,” but offered no further explanation despite Harkin's pleas.

After the hearing, Veneman told reporters that “about half of it ought to be spent during the first five years.”

The confrontation during a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing demonstrates the tensions at work as the House and Senate prepare for conference committee deliberations on the Farm Bill. Staff members have been working to reconcile the two conflicting farm policy visions, but Harkin said lawmakers likely will not sit down together until next week at the earliest. When they do, the spending level is expected to head a long list of issues the negotiators will have to address.

Much of the extra spending in the Senate bill would go toward conservation and nutrition programs and a new $2 billion subsidy program for dairy farmers. Under the Senate bill, the conservation programs would be cut sharply after 2006 and the dairy subsidies would disappear altogether. The Senate bill also includes $2.5 billion in disaster assistance for farmers who lost crops to drought and other weather-related problems in 2001.

President Bush has made loud objections to the bill crafted by Harkin because it spends more in its first five years than in the second five years. Harkin argues that farmers need the money sooner rather than later. The Senate bill allows about $42.8 billion of increased spending in the first five years, while the House bill would allow about $34.6 billion.

Veneman made it clear that the House version is the one the administration prefers. “We believe the conference should come out with a bill more similar to the House bill,” she said, because it “evenly spreads spending” out over 10 years.

This is a shift for the administration, which came out with a list of complaints about the House bill when it was on the floor, including objections to its spending on conservation and method of doling out subsidies.

The change also has clearly irritated Harkin. He said his bill is consistent with the administration's overall spending plan, which was issued before either house of Congress approved farm legislation. Harkin said the USDA estimates farm income will drop 20 percent without added aid, and government money is needed to prevent farmers and ranchers from going bankrupt.

The nation's largest farm group, the American Farm Bureau Federation, told lawmakers Wednesday that they needed to act quickly on a compromise but didn't take a position on the spending level.

“The seriousness of the economic situation confronting agriculture cannot be overemphasized,” the group said in a letter.

Des Moines Register, Associated Press