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Farm Bill ‘Not Quite’ Ready Yet

The principal farm bill negotiators conceded Tuesday that there won’t be a final bill ready for either chamber before the new year — and the chambers appear split on whether there needs to be an extension of existing farm programs.

The top four farm bill conferees — House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., House Agriculture ranking member Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Thad Cochran, R-Miss. — emerged Tuesday from Stabenow’s office to announce that while they continue to make progress on a farm bill conference, they’re not, in the words of Lucas, “quite at that point yet.”

“We are very confident we’re going to have an agreement and a framework,” Stabenow said, noting that negotiations have been hampered by inclement weather that has prevented some Congressional Budget Office scoring.

Lucas said he would introduce an extension this week.

“In light of the circumstances, the challenges in getting scores, it’s my intention to see if we need to file a bill to extend the ’08 farm bill through the end of January,” Lucas said. “We’ll see how we progress over the next few days, what that CBO scores are. Hopefully that won’t be necessary.”

Lucas said it was his intention “to have a vehicle available” before the House goes home on Friday, “in case there are unforeseen circumstances.”

“Our goal is to have an agreement that leads to a bill even if, perhaps, we can’t get it done in the House this calendar week,” he said.

But Stabenow made it clear the Senate would not be passing an extension, despite the threat that milk prices could double.

“I’m confident, talking with the Secretary of Agriculture just a little while ago, that we have no impacts on dairy in January,” she said. “The Senate’s in a little different place. We’re working very, very closely together, but we won’t be passing an extension.”

Indeed, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., told CQ Roll Call Tuesday that he didn’t think the Senate would agree to an extension.

“We want to keep the pressure on to get the farm bill done, and I think that [Agriculture Secretary Tom] Vilsack and USDA can take measures for a few weeks to make sure that they address milk prices — dairy prices,” Hoeven said.

“Right now I don’t want an extension,” he continued “Now, if somebody made commitments as to how we’re going to actually get the bill done, and that actually facilitates truly getting it done with commitments, I would consider it.”

Stabenow said she could “appreciate” the issues that Lucas has to deal with in the House, and that there was “no light between any of us here on our goal to get this done.” Still she reiterated that she didn’t think an extension was necessary.

“It is my judgment that, at least through the end of January, we’re not in a spot where dairy prices are affected at all,” Stabenow said.

In a statement, Stabenow said that a one-month extension through January could allow direct payments to continue for another year. “That’s absolutely unacceptable and will not pass the Senate. I urge House leadership to keep the House in session next week so we can get this done by the end of the year,” she said. “We will be ready to vote in January.”

Peterson said off the floor that Lucas was being pushed by GOP leadership to move an extension, something which Peterson said is unnecessary and hurts the chances of getting a deal done.

“It’s a bad idea. I don’t think we should do it, but I don’t want him to screw this up either, OK?” Peterson said. “You got people that are pushing that that don’t really understand what they’re doing, you know? And he has to deal with them, so, anyway, I’ll withhold judgment.”

“But I would like to vote against it, if they bring it up,” Peterson reiterated. “But I might not, if I think it’s going to help us get a bill at the end of the day.”

Lucas told reporters Tuesday afternoon that he intended to offer the extension that evening.

Niels Lesniewski and Emma Dumain contributed to this report.

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