WASHINGTON, Dec. 4, 2013--The top farm bill conferees are expected to huddle again today to attempt to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions in a mad dash to approve long-term legislation by the end of the year.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., were scheduled to sit down this morning with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
Talks before the Thanksgiving break apparently yielded little progress, and lawmakers hope to get negotiations quickly back on track.
Ahead of the meeting, House leaders called for action.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who has been relatively quiet on the farm bill, said he wants the conference completed. ``Chairman Lucas has made a number of good-faith efforts. We can’t get the Democrats to the point of saying yes,’’ he said yesterday.
House Minority Whip Stony Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters “they apparently made some progress” in recent meetings. ``My understanding is that they were close, and then it fell apart. It fell apart, as I understand it, for a number of reasons, one of which was the commodities title of the bill with which Lucas didn’t agree with what the Democrats were asking for.”
House Agriculture Committee member Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., said he thinks an agreement is within reach, despite some big differences.
“I’m moderately optimistic,’’ he said, adding that it ``seems like they’re coming together on some of the tougher issues like the commodity title.”
Schrader also said the nutrition title might be coming together, although he did not offer details. He said the “rest of the titles seem to be in good shape.”
The Senate bill would cut $4 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which funds food stamps, while the House bill would reduce funding by $40 billion. House Democrats have rallied against the proposed cuts.
Another obstacle, Schrader said, is a provision in the House bill from Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, which would prohibit states from enacting laws that place conditions on the means of production for agricultural goods that are sold within their own borders, but are produced in other states.
The Humane Society of the United Sates has been pressing hard against the provision, saying it includes a definition of agriculture so broad it would override any state law regulating agricultural products and end-products. King has argued the Constitution reserves the regulation of interstate commerce to the Congress, not the states.
Schrader called it a “deal-breaker” for a lot of Democrats, and said many Republicans would vote to strip it out.
“Quite frankly, that amendment needs to be gone,” Schrader said.
King, talking to reporters after a House floor vote Tuesday did not address his amendment, but spoke on other farm bill issues. King said the bottom line on the nutrition title will be how deep the cuts are to SNAP.
“This is something that will be resolved across the table between [Lucas and Stabenow],” King said. “However they decide it, they need to put that number out there and go for it.”
Still, King said he wants the maximum amount of reductions to SNAP because “it has gotten completely out of hand.”
With the end of the year looming, talk continues to rev up over another extension of the farm bill as a way to avoid reverting to permanent law. Lawmakers and USDA officials have been quick to point out that implementation of permanent law would not be immediate at the top of the year. The dreaded “dairy cliff,” where milk prices could double, would be months away absent of a congressional deal.
King and other lawmakers have repeatedly dismissed an extension. “We’re under the gun now, let’s stay under the gun, and get this done,” King said. “I think we made a mistake with the last extension in not ending direct payments in that extension.”
Still, King said no lawmakers “want to go home at Christmas and have that discussion” over the price of milk.
Meanwhile, the National Farmers Union continued Tuesday to urge conferees to complete work on the bill.
NFU President Roger Johnson said talk of passing extensions for portions of the bill, including dairy programs is “wasting precious time.”
“Instead of picking and choosing issues or putting off a real solution, the best approach for all Americans is to finish a comprehensive bill so that the president can sign it into law this year,” Johnson said. He urged conferees to come to “a principled agreement and have a draft available for consideration as soon as possible.”
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