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Roberts: Line of communication with House is open

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

Formal meetings between the House and Senate Agriculture committee staffs over the commodity title of the farm bill have not begun, but “a good line of communication is open,” Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told The Hagstrom Report today.

Roberts announced on Friday that he was ready to compromise with southerners who have a different view of the commodity title than he does. That announcement cleared an important hurdle in farm bill negotiations.

The commodity title of the Senate version of the farm bill contains a program to pay farmers for “shallow losses” not covered by crop insurance. That proposal is favored by corn and soybean producers.

The House Agriculture Committee-passed farm bill has a commodity title that offers farmers a choice between a “shallow loss” program and a program based on target prices. That proposal is favored by rice and peanut growers.

Both House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., favor offering farmers the choice of programs. Roberts has been seen as more resistant to compromise than Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., but Roberts said today that there always has to be compromise at the “11th hour, 59th minute” in a farm bill negotiation.

The offices of Stabenow, Lucas, and Peterson did not respond to email requests for comment on Roberts’ offer to compromise, but a congressional aide with a knowledge of the situation said that House and Senate staffers have been talking on the telephone.

The aide noted that the House and Senate agriculture committee staffs have “done this before,” a reference to the farm bill that Stabenow and Lucas put together for the failed Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction last year that contained the two commodity title programs.

But the aide also said that staffers are reluctant “to put cards on the table” until it is clear whether congressional leaders and President Barack Obama will include the farm bill in a deficit reduction package or whether it will be held until a reconciliation package next year.

The aide noted that the bill is being considered so late in the calendar that there may still be an issue about whether the Agriculture Department could get the new commodity title ready for the 2013 crop year if a farm bill is finished now. For that reason, the aide said, some sort of continuation of the expired direct payments program may be considered into 2013.

The aide also noted that there is enough money in the dairy baseline to provide aid to dairy producers or to establish the proposed dairy stabilization program. There is no money for other disaster aid, however, and budgetary authority for disaster programs would have to come from the direct payments.

House and Senate Agriculture committee staffs are hoping to have a clear picture about whether the farm bill is likely to become part of legislation this year by the end of this week, the aide said.