Dec 13 2013
Lawmakers working on a new farm bill said significant progress is being made and they are confident Congress will finish the much-delayed legislation by the end of January.
Those involved with the negotiations said the farm bill, which covers everything from food aid and conservation programs to farm subsidies and food stamps, is expected to be completed early next month. The legislation would then face votes in the House and the Senate later in January. There are even signs that a deal could be near on food stamps, the biggest challenge for the 41 members of the farm bill House-Senate conference committee.
"We've got a basic framework" on the farm bill, said Rep. Kristi Noem, a member of the farm bill panel. "We've definitely made progress, and I anticipate that we'll be able to dot our i's and cross our t's and get it put into law by the end of January."
The House passed a one-month extension to the farm bill Thursday. If a new bill or extension is not passed, the law reverts to a 1949 version that would lead to an increase in subsidy prices next year, starting with dairy payments. Wheat and other commodities would be affected soon after. One obstacle to an extension is that Democratic leaders in the Senate, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., previously have opposed the idea.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said he was confident that an extra month would be enough time for lawmakers to reach an agreement. "We're closer every day. I do think we're going to get this deal done," said King, alsoone of the 41 conferees.
The House is scheduled to leave for the year today with the Senate expected to adjourn Dec. 20, but conferees on both sides are expected to continue working on a farm bill next week.
In an interview, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said officials at the USDA are in daily communication with farm bill negotiators, providing information and making sure that what is being discussed is workable. Vilsack said the department is keeping a close watch on the farm bill talks, and as long as there are signs that a deal is within reach he does not plan to accelerate implementation of the 1949 law.
"If there appears to be some progress toward an agreement, there is no reason to do that, no reason to implement it," Vilsack said. "If it lingers into February, into March or beyond, then at some point in time in that time frame you are going to be confronted with" the 1949 law or the need for a farm bill extension.
For more than a year, the farm bill has been delayed because of a divide between Democrats and Republicans over how much tocut the popular food stamp program used by almost 48 million Americans. The GOP-led House has proposed a reduction of $40 billion over 10 years while the Senate has proposed $4.5 billion in its bill.
Noem said cuts between $8 billion and $15 billion are being talked about, though she cautioned the farm bill discussions are ongoing and the numbers could change. The farm bill would spend about $500 billion over five years, almost 80 percent of it going to food stamps.
While food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, remain a key issue in the farm bill talks, Vilsack said there are signs that lawmakers are making progress. It's "not as big as it once was. We've moved away somewhat from that issue," he said.
The farm bill negotiations largely have been conducted behind closed doors by four lawmakers, with the top Republican and Democrat from both the Senate and House Agriculture Committees handling most of the talks along with their staff. The only meeting open to the public was the first gathering of the farm bill conference committee where lawmakers gave remarks.
Vilsack said he was "hopeful" a new farm bill is imminent. The former Iowa governor has likened the process to waiting at the church altar for his future wife to arrive. "Before, I didn't think the bride was in the church. I think she is in the church now," he said. "It's now just a question of whether she starts walking down the aisle."