Despite protests from the Bush administration, House and Senate lawmakers are still attempting to reach an agreement before the end of the week on a compromise farm bill that could contain over $750 million in tax-exempt bond provisions.

On Tuesday, President Bush issued a statement calling for lawmakers to admit they have "failed to put forward a good farm bill," and instead pass a one-year extension of the current farm law. The bill currently being discussed by lawmakers would increase spending by at least $16 billion, "masked in part by budgetary gimmicks and funded in part by additional tax revenues," Bush complained, calling the tax revenue provisions "unacceptable."

"Despite the passage of more than a year since my administration unveiled a responsible and forward-looking farm bill proposal, there are no signs that the conference committee will reach agreement on an acceptable farm bill by Friday," he said in the statement. "I therefore call on Congress to provide our agricultural producers with the certainty to make sound business and planting decisions about this year's crop by extending current law for at least one year."

Bush made the statement four days after he signed a bill that gave the conferees one more week to work on the bill, the same day provisions of the 2002 the farm bill were to expire.

Lawmakers have insisted they want to reach an agreement on the bill being considered in conference, and are aiming to include offsets that would adhere to the pay-go rules pushed by the Democratic Congress.

The current bill under discussion appears to contain $500 million of tax-exempt timber conservation bonds, as well as $280 million of "aggie" bonds, which can be used by first-time farmers and ranchers to purchase land.

While those provisions mark an increase from last week's Senate conferree proposed version of the bill, which did not contain the timber bonds, it still comes up short of the tax-exempt provisions contained in the farm bill passed by the Senate in December.

That bill, which passed by a vote of 79 to 14, contained $1.5 billion in timber conservation bonds and also created two new categories of taxable tax-credit bonds. One would encourage projects like distance learning, telemedicine programs, telephone and broadband access, and community facilities in rural areas. The other is designed to acquire land subject to native fish habitat conservation plans.

Congressional sources have said that it is possible some tax-credit provisions may make their way into the final version of the bill, but it is not certain at this point.

Lawmakers met Tuesday to discuss a final bill, but ended the day's meeting without a resolution. A meeting to discuss the tax package that is being pushed by Senate members, but resisted by House members took place late yesterday.

However, it is not clear if they will reach agreement by Friday. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus D-Mont., has said simply that the conferrees will announce the deal once it has been reached.

Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who is overseeing the conference committee, has said that he will force roll call votes on the problematic measures if a consensus cannot be reached before the deadline.

Bush's concerns about the bill come after the two chambers were able to agree on some of the tax provisions which had been a point of contention in previous meetings.

Ways and Means Committee chairman Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., a member of the conference committee, had told senators last week that the House Democratic leadership, including House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would not sign off on the tax package because it was not part of the $10 billion tax package agreed to by the House.

 

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