WASHINGTON - Congressional negotiators reached a tentative agreement yesterday on a multibillion-dollar farm bill that includes a hefty increase for nutrition programs at a time of rising food prices.
An intense series of closed-door bargaining sessions over how to pay for the five-year, roughly $280 billion bill ended yesterday afternoon with senior Democrats expressing optimism that they would soon be sending the measure to President Bush.
"I don't think there's any question now that we can get this done by the eighth of May," said US Representative Collin C. Peterson, the Minnesota Democrat who heads the Agriculture Committee.
A key breakthrough came when senior lawmakers, after an hours-long huddle in an ornate room in the Capitol, agreed on a $1.7 billion package of tax breaks to be included in the bill, and on how to finance the overall package.
The outline includes an $861 million increase for nutrition programs, partially paid for by slashing crop subsidies by $400 million and cutting a program to pay farmers for ruined crops by $250 million.
Senator Kent Conrad, a New York Democrat, said the shift was "urgently needed because of the run-up in food costs and food prices."
It also reflected the political and economic realities surrounding this year's tough farm bill talks.
With crop prices high and the federal budget squeezed, there's less appetite in Washington for big farm programs, especially among congressional leaders who hail from urban areas.
The sharp economic slump has many lawmakers focused more on job losses and home foreclosures than farm policy.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, and US Representative Charles B. Rangel, the New York Democrat who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, pushed hard for the nutrition boosts.
"A lot of painful reductions [had] to be made in order to shift resources to places that are being hard hit by this weakening economy," Conrad said.
With the increases, Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who chairs the Agriculture Committee, said two-thirds of farm bill resources would go to nutrition.
"We carried a heavy load for nutrition," Harkin said. "It's not just a farm bill. This is a farm and a food and an energy bill."
To close funding gaps, negotiators agreed to cut an ethanol tax credit that has previously been seen as untouchable because of its popularity in politically potent Iowa. They sliced $1 billion in support for blending fuel with the corn-based additive, bringing the per-gallon credit from 51 cents to 45 cents.
They boosted support for another form of the clean-burning fuel additive - cellulosic ethanol, which is made from plant matter - by $400 million.
The measure increases funding for conservation programs, including a first-ever infusion of federal farm dollars - $372 million - to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
"This is a very good day for Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts," US Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, said.
The tax package includes several elements sought by powerful lawmakers, including a tax break for race horse owners important to Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader.