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Farm bill leader talks end without agreement

The conference between the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Agriculture committees on a new farm bill have ended for this week without an agreement.

After meeting for more than an hour in the Longworth House Office Building this morning, the big four — House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Senate Agriculture ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss. — met for less than half an hour in the basement of the Senate side of the Capitol before deciding there was no point to continue at this time.

Stabenow, who hosted the afternoon meeting, told reporters, “I'm disappointed we don’t have an agreement yet” and that she would continue “to fight for priorities that the Senate feels are important.”

She said no decision has been made as to when meetings at the member level will resume, but that the staff will keep working today, over the weekend and next week even though Thanksgiving is approaching.

“We will keep doing the best we can,” Stabenow said. “I don’t give up.”

The House has held its last votes for the week and members are leaving town, but the Senate is expected to hold votes on Friday.

Both chambers are out next week.

The House will return the first week of December, but the Senate is not expected back until December 9. The House is scheduled to go out of session on December 13 but the Senate will stay in session until December 20.

Stabenow said the four principals had been close to a comprehensive agreement on “a number of occasions,” but then the negotiations broke down. Many chapters of the bill are “very close,” Stabenow said, but it has to be “a global agreement.”

Stabenow, who had said repeatedly that she wanted an agreement this week, said she doesn’t know what it means for finishing the bill this year.

Lucas also had said it was necessary to reach agreement before Thanksgiving if the House is to vote on a conference report before December 13 and the Senate is to vote on it before December 20 so that President Barack Obama can sign it before the end of the year.

If a new bill is not finished before the end of the year and the 2008 bill is not extended, the Agriculture Department will be legally obligated to implement the 1938 and 1949 permanent farm laws. That would mean the government buying milk at out-of-date prices and a milk price spike for consumers.

Stabenow said the Senate won’t pass an extension that includes the direct payments that crop farmers have been getting whether prices are high or low. She said the Senate would pass an extension without direct payments, but that would mean the loss of about $4.9 billion per year in budget authority that is being used for both budget savings and to pay for a new commodity program.

Last year in a deal worked out by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Vice President Joe Biden, Congress did extend the 2008 farm including direct payments and food stamps. Stabenow did not mention it but there is also opposition to extending food stamps if there is not a cut or change to policy.

The Senate voted today to to eliminate the 60-vote threshold for presidential executive office and judicial nominees, except for those picked by the president for the Supreme Court, but Stabenow said that won’t affect prospects for the farm bill in the Senate, because “agriculture works across party lines.”

On the issue of House members who want deep cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known as SNAP or food stamps, Stabenow said she is not worried because most of the people who voted for that cut also oppose farm programs and are unlikely to vote for the farm bill.

On the size of the cut to SNAP, she said “it’s all about policy.”

With the recent reduction in SNAP benefits due to the expiration of the Recovery Act boost, Stabenow said she wants to make sure the nutrition title does not take food away from hungry people.

Stabenow said she wants to write a bill that a majority of members “who support rural America” will vote for because it will save taxpayers money, provide a safety net for farmers and provide food for low-income people.