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Lucas Suggests Path Forward For Farm Bill

A deal to avert the fiscal cliff could pave the way for the new Congress to pass a farm bill next year, House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas says.

In an interview Thursday with an Oklahoma radio station, Lucas gave two options for dealing with the farm bill as part of a tax increase and spending cuts deal between the White House and Congress. One would be to drop a new farm bill into the fiscal package, which could still be a long shot given the challenges of marrying the House and Senate versions (HR 6083, S 3240) with only three weeks left in the lame duck.

The second option, and the one on which the Oklahoma Republican notably went into some detail, would call for writing provisions into the fiscal package to extend the expired 2008 farm law (PL 110-246) into 2013 and set a target for budget savings that the new bill would have to achieve. The new bill could then be finished next spring in expedited fashion as part of a broader budget reconciliation process needed to implement the cuts and revenue increases that would be called for in a fiscal agreement.

A reconciliation bill goes to the floor for an up-or-down vote, with little opportunity for amendment. That could protect the farm bill on the House floor from the inevitable attacks on commodity price supports.

The Agriculture Department already has told congressional budget analysts that it can’t have a new program for cotton ready for 2013 and it’s unlikely at this point that some other new programs could be ready for next year either, which would mean existing policy, including direct payments, would have to be extended through next year.

“There is a way to work this process out without falling off the end of the cliff on dairy policy on Jan. 1 and still enable us to get our work done,” Lucas said, referring to the prospect of a 1949 law kicking in Jan. 1 when existing dairy policy expires. “But this requires the speaker and the president to achieve some understandings that then everybody will show some willingness to support, and we’re still days from working that out.”

The House farm bill would cut spending by $35 billion over five years, while the Senate version would save $23 billion. The difference comes from the House bill’s deeper cut, strongly opposed by Democrats, in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

Lucas said nothing about the budget reconciliation option after his meeting Thursday afternoon with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and other leaders of the House and the Senate agriculture committees.

Neither Vilsack nor the congressional committee leaders would go into the specifics of what they talked about during the 40-minute meeting. Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., did respond with an emphatic “no” when asked whether an extension of the 2008 farm bill was under discussion. And Vilsack said, “There was a commitment on the part of all four of the folks in that room today to look at a five-year farm bill. That’s what we’re focused on, not an extension.”

Stabenow said she has been talking to the other committee leaders about reconciling differences in the House and Senate bills, but there has been little evidence that the necessary staff work has been going on.

A version of this story ran in CQ Roll Call Executive Briefing-Agriculture & Food.

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