This may be an urgent year for reducing federal red ink, but it's no time to make big cuts in farm and rural programs. At least that is the view of some of members of Congress who have long been among the most frugal. ``My farmers are just hanging on by their fingernails,'' says Sen. Robert Kasten (R) of Wisconsin.
Once identified as a New Right Reaganite who came to Washington to help dismantle the bloated government, the farm-state senator now speaks of the ``harsh reductions'' proposed by his own party for agriculture.
``In my judgment we're going to end up with a freeze,'' he said this week. The Republican package, drawn up by the White House and Senate leaders, would cut $18 billion from farm-related programs during the next three years.
Another fiscal conservative, Sen. James Abdnor (R) of South Dakota, concedes that ``I'm parochial'' when it comes to agriculture, which he says is ``everything'' to his state. He says he is willing to add federal money for agriculture ``whether we have any or not.''
Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico predicted in an interview that ``if the proposals that I have seen around'' are passed, ``we'll add back no less than $10 billion in agriculture.''
Despite the talk about farmers on Capitol Hill, farm supporters had not yet agreed on a tactic for adding money to the fiscal 1986 budget now being debated in the Senate. But the farm bloc will almost certainly wage a campaign, probably as part of an overall budget package late this week.
Ironically, the federal government during the Reagan administration has poured more money into agriculture than any time in history. From 1981 through this year the cost has been $53 billion, five times the original estimates.
Despite this influx, many farmers are suffering the worst depression since the 1930s because of low crop prices and falling land values.
Iowa farmer Farris Gray, speaking to reporters at the Capitol, asked his urban listeners to ``imagine if your $100,000 home'' dropped down to only $30,000 in value. ``That is what happened to our farm,'' he said.
Virtually everyone involved with the farm problem has conceded that the expensive federal programs have failed.
That conclusion, however, has not convinced farm-state lawmakers to accept big cutbacks.
``There seems to be a gulf between the people who would offer amendments'' to increase spending and the ``growing consensus that we need to make fundamental changes'' in the farm program, says one GOP aide.
The aide predicts it would be ``tough to beat back'' the farm proposals. ``You have the image of rural America being destroyed,'' he said.
Among the programs with the strongest support are federal crop insurance, which the Reagan administration has tried to shift to private insurers, and the Soil Conservation Service, which has been slated for major cuts.
Republicans restored money for the Rural Electrification Administration, another popular program, even before they introduced their budget proposal last week. They may have to add more funding for agricultural programs before the budget process is complete, especially since about half of the 22 GOP senators facing reelection next year are from farm states.
But still facing the Congress after the budget is passed will be reform of the farm programs.
The Reagan administration has tried to halt the government's role in setting prices for crops by dramatically cutting the cost of farm programs. Such a drastic approach, however, has almost no support in Congress.
The GOP budget agreement calls for a moderate approach, with fewer cutbacks.
Meanwhile, a group of Senate and House Democrats announced a farm bill Tuesday that would turn the administration approach on its head.
The chief sponsor, Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, said his ``populist'' bill would raise farm income and lower federal costs. It would involve extensive government involvement and require farmers to hold 15 percent of their land out of production to curtail surpluses and force crop prices upward.