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Harkin: Insurance cuts unlikely

DANIEL LOOKER 12/20/2012 @ 9:34pm Business Editor

Recently the Environmental Working Group and a coalition of several conservative small-government organizations called for cutting $20 to $30 billion out of federal subsidies for crop insurance. That, along with ending the direct payment program and trilmmilng other commodity programs could save the federal government $100 billion over 10 years, EWG argues.

Thursday, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that he doesn't believe the Obama Administration will push for crop insurance cuts.

"That's not something I've heard the White House press," he told Agriculture.com. "I've gotten no calls from the Secretary of Agriculture."

The Obama Administration has proposed small cuts to crop insurance subsidies in its budget, but Harkin hasn't heard any recent support for something that neither the Senate nor House agriculture committees included in their own versions of a farm bill. 

"I don't see any oomph behind it. They're not pushing it," he said.

When the Senate's Democratic caucus met earlier this week, "the White House sent their people to talk to us," Harkin said. The Administration seems willing to include a farm bill in a fiscal cliff deal, if one is worked out.

"I think the would be amenable to putting it into a final deal," Harkin said.

That possibility seemed remote on Thursday, when House Speaker John Boehner pulled a "Plan B" fiscal cliff bill that would have kept income taxes at current levels for all but those earning more than $1 million. And Boehner has said he doesn't have support in the House for rolling a farm bill into any fiscal cliff deal.

The House and Senate ag committees also remained at an impasse over details of the commodity title, especially the level of spending on a target-price program that would appeal to rice and peanut farmers in the South, according to Harking and Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD). 

"The funding for rice and peanuts are the problem for the South," Johnson said. "Perhaps there is a solution for rice and peanuts."

Commodity groups seemed to be growing more pessimistic over farm bill progress.

"After several intense weeks of negotiations and with just 10 days remaining in the year, there is no apparent plan to pass a new farm bill or an extension of current farm policy," Melissa George Kessler wrote Thursday in the newsletter of the National Association of Wheat Growers.

"Late this week, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) sharply rejected the notion that there is no legislative vehicle for a farm bill to move before the end of the year," Kessler wrote. "She also threw support behind an agricultural disaster assistance amendment to a bill that would provide aid to victims of Superstorm Sandy. That is one of the few bills anticipated to move in either chamber before they recess."

Farm groups are well aware that failure to pass a farm bill soon, with spending cuts between $23 billion and $35 billion, will likely mean even greater cuts in any bill written in 2013. In spite of solid support for crop insurance in the ag committees, political pressure to cut crop insurance subsidies won't go away. 

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