Heavy Dealing on Capitol Hill

A freshman lawmaker's attempt to leverage a bovine hormone ban for dairy-farmer constituents was the last compromise in a Byzantine round of negotiations

LET'S make a deal.

That's been the theme on Capitol Hill this week as President Clinton scrambles for votes to pass his budget. Senate Democrats have been especially successful in squeezing concessions from the administration because each of them is crucial to the plan's success or failure.

Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey salvaged a large portion of the Puerto Rico tax break, which benefits many companies based in his state. Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona, whose state is home to many retirees, reduced the tax increase on Social Security recipients. His support for the budget, announced Wednesday, will probably ensure its passage.

Still, few senators milked the administration as brazenly as Russell Feingold. The freshman Democrat from Wisconsin inserted into the Senate Agriculture Committee's contribution to the "Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993" a one-year ban on bovine somatotropin (BST), a genetically engineered hormone designed to increase cows' milk production by 10 percent to 25 percent.

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) is believed to be on the verge of approving BST for sale, despite the concerns of some biotechnology critics that it may be harmful to humans.

Many small-dairy farmers, concentrated in Wisconsin, Vermont, and a few other states, are concerned that BST will give an advantage to their larger and more technologically advanced rivals.

"What this product will do is further hasten the loss of dairy farmers in our state and throughout the country," Senator Feingold told reporters. "Now I'm not going to sit back and allow that to happen in the name of `science.' "

But if Feingold thought he could quietly move his BST ban past the House-Senate conference committee, he was mistaken. If nothing else, the power of the Monsanto Company, a Missouri-based drug manufacturer that has spent 13 years and $500 million developing BST, blocked his path.

In the 1991-92 campaign cycle, Monsanto and its executives handed out $133,900 to congressional candidates, according to figures compiled for the Monitor by the Center for Responsive Politics. Of that total, $21,050 went to Sen. Christopher (Kit) Bond (R) of Missouri and $5,000 to Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri.

Before long, supporters of BST were attacking the Feingold provision as an end-of-Western-civilization-as-we-know-it type of issue. Banning BST for political reasons, they argued, could jeopardize the entire biotechnology industry. "This kind of know-nothingism, this kind of an attempt to turn back the clock on science, will not serve us well," Senator Bond thundered on Tuesday.

Supporters of BST, ranging from Sen. David Pryor (D) of Arkansas to Rep. Harold Volkmer (D) of Missouri, managed to stymie Feingold's amendment in conference. But Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, chairman of the Agriculture Committee, refused to budge from his support for the BST ban. "I've never seen so much hoo-ha over such an insignificant thing," comments one House staff member.

House-Senate conferees remained hopelessly deadlocked on the issue when they adjourned for the weekend on July 30, all their other business completed.

The House leadership and the administration had to get involved to resolve the debate. On Monday, Feingold conducted a conference call with budget director Leon Panetta, House majority leader Gephardt, and five key congressmen.

They came up with the broad outlines of a compromise: The one-year ban on BST would be jettisoned in favor of a 90-day moratorium starting from the time the FDA approved it. During that period, the Agriculture Department would conduct a survey of the hormone's social and economic effects, which might set the stage for further congressional action.

Also during those 90 days, dairy farmers would get a 10 percent tax break. Total cost to the government: $5 million.

House Democrats grudgingly agreed to include the compromise in the budget because they were told by the White House that the BST provision was necessary to win Feingold's vote for the president's package. Yet Feingold publicly declared on Wednesday that he would back the budget no matter what happened with the BST plan.

"What Feingold said publicly and what he said privately may be at some variance," says one House aide. "His public statement didn't make him any friends. Everyone's mad at him now in the House."

Senate Republicans are also seething. Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, one of the agriculture conferees, says the Feingold provision was never approved by the conference committee. Its inclusion in the final conference report, he says, "is the evil of reconciliation."

But Feingold has walked away from the bovine-melee uncowed. The budget deal may not have given him everything he wanted, he tells an interviewer, but it's enough for him to claim victory before his constituents.

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