Dole's farm proposal a `piece of art'

Take Kansas wheat (lots of it), add some Arkansas and Louisiana rice, go lightly on the Iowa corn, and sprinkle the mix with a dash of North Dakota sunflower-seed oil for flavor. Put in a hot political oven and bake a long time.

That's approximately the recipe for the farm bill that Senate majority leader Robert Dole has put together.

No one expects to like the concoction very much when it is done. At a time when the farm community is facing the toughest economic times in half a century, the farm program that is slowly emerging from Congress offers no magic solutions.

It will be a ``hold the line'' type of proposal, says Robert A. Denman, a legislative assistant with the Farmers Union. That view is widely held on Capitol Hill, where the lawmakers have been struggling most of the year over renewing the four-year farm program that technically expired last month.

The new program will almost certainly bust the budget, or at least ``bend'' it, as Senator Dole has said, at a time when the lawmakers are also debating deficit reduction.

But Kansas Republican Dole is feeling tugs from both his farm state, where he faces reelection next year, and from his commitments as the majority leader to cut deficits. His chief goal now is to pass a bill -- almost any bill.

``The most important thing we could do as a body is to complete action'' on the Senate bill before Thanksgiving so that the House and Senate can work out a compromise farm program before Christmas, Dole told his colleagues this week.

To that end, the master legislative craftsman put together the ingredients for a successful vote in private off-floor meetings. As a Kansan, he started with a base of strong proposals favoring wheat farmers. Then he offered aid to other crops.

Bringing individual senators, especially Southern Democrats, into his Capitol office, he offered proposals that brought 10 members of the opposition party on board for a key vote on the Dole plan.

These Democrats more than made up for the six Republican farm staters who dissented.

As Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana said after signing onto the Dole plan, ``It is, in effect, an offer that we cannot refuse.'' Senator Johnston won aid for his sugar and rice farmers hit by both floods and poor markets.

Rice growers, in Louisiana, Arkansas, and California, had been underdogs in the commodity tug of war in the past. But Dole's offer of additional aid brought support from the rice contingency and all the Democratic senators from those states.

The majority leader pulled in a straying Republican, Sen. Mark Andrews of North Dakota, with an offer of one-year payments worth an estimated $75 million to sunflower growers in the state. North Dakota is the top producer of sunflower-seed oil.

Left out of the coalition was the corn belt, whose senators bitterly complained that the Dole proposal bites into supports for their farmers while keeping support levels for wheat. ``I cannot support a package that costs corn farmers 82 cents per bushel during the next three years, nor can I defend anyone who votes for it,'' said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R) of Iowa.

Sen. J. James Exon, a Democrat from the corn-growing state of Nebraska, complained privately about the method in which the bill is being put together and noted that the GOP leaders were ``doing everything that they can to get the necessary votes.'' Another Democrat said admiringly of the Dole package, ``It's a piece of art.''

The bill has an unconventional solution to a major controversy over whether to freeze ``target'' price supports for wheat, corn, cotton, and rice for four years or for one year. Many farm staters want to hold the price supports at their current high level for four years. Dole wants to freeze them for only one year and then allow supports to drop.

When he couldn't find sufficient votes, Dole simply combined both plans into his package, although they are contradictory. (It would be left to a Senate-House conference committee to resolve the conflict.)

At the Senate yesterday Dole appeared to be winning, in spite of vague threats of a filibuster by his chief opponent, Sen. John Melcher (D) of Montana.

Supplying much of the political heat in the farm debate is the partisan struggle over control of the Senate. Twenty-two Republicans, including several from farm states, are up for reelection next year.

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