- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2001

The milk price-support program cherished by party-switching Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont has reached its expiration date.

The Northeast Dairy Compact lapses on Sunday. Congress took no action to renew it before lawmakers left town on Wednesday, meaning the price supports for New England dairy farmers will expire.

The development is a significant political loss for Mr. Jeffords, whose rift with the White House over tax cuts this spring widened when the administration hinted it might not support renewal of the dairy program.

Mr. Jeffords quit the GOP in June to become an independent, throwing control of the Senate to the Democrats and complicating the administration's ability to enact its agenda. Since then, Mr. Jeffords has been urging Senate Democrats to help him renew the dairy program because, he said, Republicans would be seeking revenge against him.

In a statement, Mr. Jeffords and his fellow Vermont lawmakers, Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy and independent Rep. Bernard Sanders, blamed the failure to extend the pact on "powerful interests" allied against them, and on the changed "legislative landscape" since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They said they will try to renew the program this fall or early next year.

A Senate aide who asked not to be named said the terrorist attacks "have put everything on hold." The staffer said the loss of the program would not hurt New England farmers immediately because milk prices are currently above the $16.94 per-hundred-pounds level at which the price supports take effect.

"In the short term, it's not going to make a huge difference," the aide said. "But who knows five months down the road? That's when this gets ugly."

Mr. Jeffords ran into stiff opposition from his new friends in the Democratic Party, especially Wisconsin Sens. Herb Kohl and Russell D. Feingold. Wisconsin does not have such federal price supports for its dairy farmers, and its senators have labeled the Northeast Compact a "cartel."

The debate created an awkward situation for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who became majority leader thanks to Mr. Jeffords but opposes dairy compacts. Mr. Daschle said in July he was willing to pursue a temporary extension of the dairy compact as a favor to Mr. Jeffords and Mr. Leahy.

A Daschle spokesman said yesterday that the South Dakota Democrat remained opposed to dairy compacts in general but would be willing to allow debate on renewing the Northeast program if supporters can put the issue on the Senate floor.

But since Congress returned to work in September, there have been few measures on which to add the dairy pact. And Mr. Kohl told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that supporters of the Northeast Compact didn't bring it up because they simply lacked the votes.

The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), a Washington-based lobby representing dairy processors, said yesterday the expiration of the compact "signals the end of the milk cartel."

"We've fought hard to push back the compact and keep it from being extended into additional states, where it could end up costing U.S. consumers up to $2 billion in higher milk prices," said IDFA Vice President Connie Tipton. "Anyone who looks into this issue knows that compacts are extremely problematic and simply don't work. Continuing such a policy is shortsighted and not in the interest of consumers or the dairy industry."

The House is scheduled to take up the agricultural appropriations bill next week, and congressional sources said renewing the Northeast Compact could be offered as an amendment.

Begun in July 1997, the compact has cost New England consumers $146 million in higher milk prices, the IDFA said.

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