WASHINGTON — Ending a struggle that lasted almost a year, Senate and House negotiators agreed Saturday night on a massive five-year farm bill that generally renews expensive crop subsidy programs in hopes of tiding debt-ridden farmers through the worst financial crisis in 50 years.
Just before reaching agreement, the conferees pared more than $2 billion from the compromise measure in an effort to avoid a veto by President Reagan. That brought the bill's estimated three-year subsidy costs to about $52 billion, close to the $50-billion limit the President had demanded.
In addition, the legislation--the most voluminous ever considered by Congress--includes $36 billion for food stamps over three fiscal years, beginning last Oct. 1.
Block Won't Comment
Congressional leaders will try to push the farm measure through both houses and on to the White House before Congress leaves for a long recess sometime this week.
Agriculture Secretary John R. Block, who grudgingly acceded to several key provisions and strongly opposed others, refused to say whether he would recommend that Reagan sign or veto the bill. "I am not commenting," Block told reporters.
However, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), a conferee up for reelection next year in a hard-hit wheat-growing state, appeared confident that the President would accept the legislation.
"I think we're in good shape," he said. "The President has an opportunity now to put a cap on this effort by signing a bill and sending a message to the farmers that he's on board."
The legislation makes relatively modest changes in current subsidy programs, which are renewed for five years, although cost estimates are available for only the first three years.
Week of Grueling Talks
It slightly reduces guaranteed minimum prices of crops in an effort to boost exports and cut taxpayer costs. But it effectively increases direct income subsidy payments to wheat, corn, cotton and rice farmers, many of whom are threatened with bankruptcy.
In one of their last actions during more than a week of grueling talks, the conferees adopted a new plan for cutting overproduction and huge surpluses of milk, butter and cheese.
The plan calls for placing a tax on dairy farmers that would be used to finance government purchases of entire herds of dairy cattle. If that gambit, which would involve the slaughter or export of an estimated 800,000 cows, did not work, then the secretary of agriculture could substantially lower dairy price support levels in 1987.
To prevent markets from being depressed by the new slaughtering, the government would be required to purchase 400 million pounds of red meat for donation to school lunch and international food aid programs.
Reagan strongly opposed the new tax, seeking instead an immediate reduction in price supports to discourage milk production and reduce surpluses of dried milk, butter and cheese.
However, Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), who helped forge the dairy agreement, indicated that Block was "not opposed" to it.
Cut in Dairy Spending
Coelho estimated that current spending levels on dairy subsidies would be cut by about $3.5 billion over three years and that the 2 billion pounds of milk, butter and cheese in government storage would be substantially reduced.
The conferees also approved $1-billion worth of increases in food stamp benefits over the next three years, despite protests by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N. C.) that too little was being done to crack down on fraud and administrative errors.
Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey), an author of the food stamp compromise, fought Helms' demands for spending cuts, saying they would jeopardize the bill.
House Defeat Feared
Rep. Edward R. Madigan (R-Ill.) backed Panetta, saying that, although he favored more cuts in the food stamp program, that would turn urban representatives against the bill and probably defeat it in the House.
"We've cut $8 billion (from food stamps) in the last four years," Panetta said. "No other area of agriculture has endured that level of reductions."
Helms countered: "If we don't crack down on this (fraud by some recipients), we're doing a disservice to the poor. This food stamp racket is so big, the Mafia is in it."
Helms said editorial cartoons accusing him of "wanting to deny food to the poor" were "a damned lie."