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Lawmakers reach deal on new six-year farm bill

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Lawmakers have reached a tentative agreement on a farm bill that would boost agricultural spending by about 70 percent, marking a reversal of a 1996 law that was intended to wean farmers from government support.

The market-oriented approach instituted by the 1996 law never had its intended effect. Commodity prices collapsed in 1998, and Congress has responded with a series of annual bailouts to supplement regular subsidy programs.

Terms of the new six-year deal were sketchy, and lawmakers said it remains subject to change pending some final negotiations and revisions in cost estimates.

"I'll tell you who wins: the American farmer," said the lead House negotiator, Rep. Larry Combest, R-Texas.

His Senate counterpart, Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, said the accord "transcends party lines, will bring prosperity back to rural America and charts a new course for farm policy."

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The bill would increase total agriculture spending by about $7.4 billion a year.

Loan rates will be increased for grain, cotton and soybeans, and the bill revives a target price system, abolished by the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act, to provide additional income.

In a victory for Southern growers and large Midwest farms, no significant new limits will be set on payments that individual farms could collect.

Despite widespread support in the House and Senate for restrictions on subsidies to big farms, the agreement would keep alive a program that allows grain, cotton and soybean growers to collect unlimited amounts of crop subsidies.

"Any big cotton or rice operator or superlarge corn and soybean operator is now going to have absolutely no restraints whatsoever," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.

According to lawmakers and congressional aides, the bill also will include a new subsidy program for dairy farmers; a requirement that meat, fish and produce be labeled with the country of origin, starting in two years; and a new $2 billion conservation program to reward crop farmers for improved environmental practices, lawmakers said.

Additionally, the deal was expected to restore food stamps to noncitizens. Dropped in the final deal was a Senate-passed ban on meatpacker ownership of cattle and hogs, one lawmaker said.

Lawmakers hoped to wrap up the agreement Friday after getting new cost estimates from congressional budget analysts.

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"The whole thing could blow up. I don't think it will. It depends on those numbers," said Rep. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.

The legislation will replace farm, nutrition and land-conservation programs set to expire this fall. The new bill would expire in 2008, a presidential election year.

Negotiators were stalled for weeks over regional differences on crop subsidies as well as the labeling proposal and the meatpacker restriction.

Election-year politics figured prominently in the talks.

The food-labeling rule was a major issue for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who is trying to secure the re-election of the bill's sponsor, fellow South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson.

Southern Democrats, meanwhile, were pressing Daschle to drop proposals opposed by farms in their states.

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