by Chris Clayton, DTN Ag Policy Editor
WASHINGTON (DTN) — Senate Agriculture Committee leaders are ready to hold a committee meeting next week to adopt and pass a new farm bill.
Reflecting a bipartisanship not seen recently, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said she and ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., will have a “joint mark for the committee,” meaning they will present one bill to the entire committee under both of their names. The formal mark could be released by the end of this week, she said.
Stabenow hasn’t officially announced a markup date, but the Senate Agriculture Committee is planning for April 25. It’s possible the mark-up session could take more than one day.
“We pretty much know where the issues are,” Stabenow said in a meeting with agriculture reporters on Tuesday. “We have actually a tremendous amount of consensus around a majority of the bill.”
Stabenow plans to go title-by-title through the legislation to pass it next week and doesn’t expect a lot of disputes. “I don’t anticipate amendments on every title,” Stabenow said. “Most of the issues have been worked out.”
Roberts said members of the committee would like to get a bill written next week. Not everything is ironed out yet, he said. “We know that the Senate has to move. We know that 2013 is not going to present a better situation from a fiscal standpoint, from a (Congressional Budget Office) score.”
Roberts said a strong, bipartisan vote out of committee will convince the Senate leadership to move a bill to the floor in May.
The proposed commodity programs have changed since last fall’s proposal, but the Senate Agriculture Committee plans to continue pushing for $23 billion in cuts. Several senators have introduced competing proposals around commodity programs.
“We’re working with all commodity groups and all sections of the country and that is always a challenge,” Roberts said. He added, “We need to understand this may not be the best bill possible in the eyes of some commodity groups or regions of the country, but it’s the best bill possible and we have to move.”
Southern commodities want higher target prices in return for losing direct payments. Northern farmers want a shallow-loss program to complement crop insurance.
“Southerners have different challenges than our members in the Northern Plains, as well as everyone else in the middle,” Stabenow said.
Rice and peanut producers are affected more by eliminating direct payments that would require some phase-in of a new program, Stabenow said. Further, there are some concerns about the cotton insurance program known as “STAX,” or Stacked Income Protection Plan, because of issues raised over compliance with World Trade Organization rules. Brazil, which sued the U.S. over the 2002 farm bill, has raised issues regarding the reference price used for cotton revenue.
“I would expect that they may have concerns with whatever we have, but we want to be reasonable and have something we believe is defensible,” Stabenow said. “We would argue we are moving to crop insurance. STAX is really a crop insurance model.”
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., agreed with Stabenow that work on the conservation title, rural development and research are largely agreed upon and achievable. “The commodity title represents the real challenge,” he said.
Lucas faces challenges in the House that don’t affect the Senate markup. In particular, the House Budget Committee is pushing for steeper, more immediate cuts, particularly in nutrition programs.
Lucas noted, “Does it look like I am going to consume a lot of Maalox before this is over with or some other comparable product? Absolutely.”
On the idea of extending the current bill, Roberts said he doubted that would pass either chamber. House Ag ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said there is a real possibility House Republicans would not extend the current farm bill without budget cuts. “And that means you are writing a farm bill. So it’s going to be very difficult to get an extension in the House.”
RECONCILIATION IS AN EXERCISE
Lucas downplayed Wednesday’s budget-reconciliation markup by his committee to show $33 billion to $34 billion in savings over 10 years by cuts largely to nutrition programs. Lucas and Peterson both dismissed the relevance of the legislation.
“It is an exercise to demonstrate the ability to achieve savings,” Lucas said, noting the Senate will not take it up. “It is not the farm bill.”
The actual farm bill will face cuts in all areas, he said.
Peterson said there will be no amendments to change the reconciliation process. He said agriculture committee members from both parties agree that the reconciliation vote is largely symbolic. “There will be a bunch of speeches and a vote. It doesn’t mean anything anyway.”
Peterson has been a strong critic of the Budget Committee, which he says has no real authority to require cuts and has become nothing but a partisan panel that fails to make real process of fiscal issues.
Still, Peterson sees the reconciliation fight over food stamps as eventually translating into actual farm-bill cuts in nutrition programs that would be meaningful. Even though the Senate is at $23 billion, the House likely will eventually have more cuts in the farm bill closer to $34 billion over 10 years, Peterson said. “The Senate is having enough trouble sorting this out at the lower number,” he said. “My guess is the only way Republicans will be able to get up to $34 billion is to do it with food stamps.”
The House Agriculture Committee will hold a field hearing Friday in Kansas. Further hearings are expected in Washington during May.
Even though Wednesday’s reconciliation may be an exercise, the farm bill that passes the House likely will have more nutrition cuts than the Senate bill. Further, almost every title will see cuts.
“There will be substantial savings,” Lucas said. “I acknowledge that to you. I can’t say what they will be, but I do know everything will see reductions.”
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