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Vilsack, Stabenow: Still time for farm bill if Boehner reconsiders it for ‘fiscal cliff’ legislation

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said today that there is still time to finish a farm bill and add to “fiscal cliff” legislation, if only House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, will reconsider a decision not to include it.

Stabenow also said supporters will be back in Washington next week still hoping to add the farm bill to “fiscal cliff” legislation.”

The farm bill comments occurred as the White House announced that President Barack Obama would veto Boehner’s proposed “Plan B” bill that would extend tax cuts except for those on people with incomes of more than $1 million per year.

Vilsack’s and Stabenow’s comments were in reference to a report in Politico on Thursday that a Boehner aide had said, “We can’t drop a farm bill in the middle of whatever is negotiated. A 1,000-page bill on top of whatever is negotiated will just make our vote situation harder.”

But it is unclear how long a final farm bill would be, since no conference report between the Senate-passed bill and the House Agriculture Committee-passed bill has been negotiated. The Senate bill was only 549 pages.

“We need to tell the speaker it’s not a thousand-page bill. It's a bill that can be easily linked to, and provide savings for, any ‘fiscal cliff’ resolution,” Vilsack told reporters after a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters in Washington.

“We would encourage the speaker to rethink the notion it can't be done. It can be done,” he added.

Vilsack also said “there is no doubt in my mind” that Stabenow, Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., could round up the votes to pass the bill.

Stabenow made a noon speech on the Senate floor.

“The issue is not differences in the commodity title, of which we certainly have every confidence can come together and to work out,” Stabenow said, according to an unofficial transcript.

“The question is whether or not as we are seeing efforts being worked on a larger deficit-reduction package, whether the House leadership will think rural America and agriculture are important enough to include.”

She added, “I am appalled continually that the Republican leadership of the United States House of Representatives does not consider the security, the livelihood of 16 million people who live in rural America across this country to be a priority worth including in a final list of things that need to yet be done. Now we’re not giving up. We’re coming back next week and we’re going to be here.”

(Stabenow also discussed her decision to co-sponsor a disaster aid amendment for livestock and fruit producers as part of the supplemental disaster assistance bill. See following story.)

When asked whether he would want Congress to pass an extension of dairy programs if the farm bill is not passed, Vilsack still made a pitch for the dairy stabilization program that is in both the Senate and House bills.

Not passing a five-year farm bill before the end of the year would endanger the interests of both dairy farmers and consumers, who would see milk prices go up, and wheat farmers, who are the first farmers to plant in the spring, he said.

Vilsack said he has not been privy to the conversations between Boehner and Obama, but that he is certain cuts to farm programs could be part of the mix in those conversations, noting that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has said the administration believes farm programs could be a way to reduce spending, as Boehner has demanded.

Asked whether he agreed with the administration’s view expressed in budget documents that crop insurance could be cut, Vilsack said that there are “ways in which all programs can be reformed.”

That sweeping statement would presumably include food stamps, which the White House has opposed cutting.

Asked what impact Obama’s scheduled plans to leave Friday for Christmas in Hawaii could have on the situation, Vilsack said that there are many forms of communications in modern times, and that schedules can also change.