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Published December 07, 2012, 11:52 AM

Farm bill closer to inclusion in fiscal cliff legislation

Congress appears to be edging closer to including a farm bill in legislation to deal with the fiscal cliff.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — Congress appears to be edging closer to including a farm bill in legislation to deal with the fiscal cliff.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Dec. 6 there is no reason Congress cannot finish the farm bill before the end of the year, while House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., took a more cautious position and House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., signaled that he might support an extension if it includes a new dairy program.

Vilsack, Stabenow and Lucas all gave their views in separate speeches at the Farm Journal Forum conference in Washington, while Peterson gave an interview to Politico.

Vilsack said there are no policy reasons that the farm bill has not been passed, and the fact that the House has not taken it up is a signal of declining political power in rural America.

Vilsack said he told the chairmen and ranking members that there was a possibility the farm bill could be included in the deficit reduction and tax bill. But he urged them to work on the differences between the Senate-passed bill and the House Agriculture Committee-passed bill because they could not ask the rest of Congress to wait for them to work out their differences.

At that meeting, Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he would compromise with the southerners on their differences over the commodity title in the bill.

Stabenow said she was opposed to an extension, which an aide said was a step up from her previous statements that an extension would be bad legislation.

“We are not talking about an extension, we are not going to do an extension,” Stabenow said. “Farmers in America need a five-year farm bill. We know how to do this and we know that cuts to agriculture are on the table whether we are in the room or not.”

She added, “We are at a point right now where we are in the room working together on the final pieces of difference between the House and the Senate, and I am very encouraged by the conversations.”

Stabenow said she would “oppose any extension of this farm program” because there are 37 expiring programs that would have to be funded.

Opposing viewpoints

Lucas also signaled that farm groups still need to come together.

In an apparent reference to the differences between corn and soybean groups that prefer the Senate-passed revenue program that would pay farmers for losses that crop insurance does not cover, and the rice and peanut groups that prefer the target price option in the House Agriculture Committee-passed bill, Lucas asked, “Will my ag community friends be able to get on the same page if we are asked to come together in a way to achieve a set amount of savings this fall or early winter?”

He also said a target price-based option must be in the farm bill for him to support it.

Lucas spoke positively about the direct payments that crop farmers have been getting whether prices are high or low, noting that they are World Trade Organization-compliant.

But Stabenow said, “I think the public has spoken strongly,” adding that Obama, Boehner and the Senate have all made statements criticizing them.

“We should not continue direct payments,” she said.

Lucas, Stabenow and Vilsack all took different positions on changes to food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.

Lucas said he believes that the food stamp program can be cut dramatically and “and not take one calorie off of one needy person’s plate” if beneficiaries are not automatically qualified, a system known as categorical eligibility.

Stabenow said she would accept the idea of cutting more than the $4.5 billion from food stamps over 10 years that is in the Senate-passed bill by increasing efforts for efficiency and fighting fraud and abuse. But she said she would not accept an end to categorical eligibility.

Meanwhile, Peterson, who has said he would organize opposition to an extension, told Politico that if an extension bill contains the milk stabilization program that he has written, he would consider supporting it.

On dairy, Lucas said today, “Something has to be done. I will simply say I voted for Mr. Peterson’s language in the bill and I voted to defend it, so I’m on record.”

The National Milk Producers Federation vigorously favors the dairy stabilization program, while the International Dairy Foods Association bitterly opposes it.