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Last gasp for 2012 farm bill

Farm groups are likely to make a push for getting a farm bill passed immediately when Congress returns to work late next Tuesday. But few are betting that a new five-year law will be passed in the lame duck session.

"We are going to do everything we can to get a farm bill passed," said Roger Johnson, president of National Farmers Union. Johnson noted that the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, Representative Collin Peterson (D-MN) said earlier this week that he believes there are enough Democratic members of the House to pass the bill along with members of the majority party that would favor it as well.

On Thursday, Peterson released a statement urging the bill's passage.

“The election is over so it’s time to get to work. I’m optimistic that, if given the chance, we have the votes to pass a five-year farm bill. There is no good reason not to vote on the bill when we return next week, before Thanksgiving. This will give us the time we need to work out our differences with the Senate and get a new five-year farm bill signed into law by the end of the year," Peterson said. “I remain opposed to an extension of any kind for any time.”

In Monday, in an interview with Agriculture.com, the committee's chairman, Representative Frank Lucas (R-OK), said he would need about four days of floor time to debate and pass the bill that his committee voted out last summer.

Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told Agriculture.com Friday that he doesn't think the House has the time to deal with a farm bill along with all of the other tax issues that must be resolved, or extended by some kind of short-term legislation into early 2013.

"The House hasn't taken this up yet and I think it would take a full week. That week doesn't exist," Hoefner said.

The House won't really get to work until Wednesday, he said, and he's not certain whether it would remain in session on Friday before breaking for the Thanksgiving recess the following week.

That likely leaves early December to deal with a host of tax issues, including the expiring Bush era tax cuts, keeping middle-class taxpayers from having to pay alternative minimum tax, an estate tax that reverts to a $1 million exemption, and a long list of tax credits that are renewed every year with "extenders." Those include credits for wind energy, biodiesel, and cellulosic ethanol. And there is the $1.2 trillion in spending cuts known as sequestration, that start next year. The combination of potentially higher taxes and spending cuts is known as the fiscal cliff. There are other issues, too, including preventing lower doctor fees for Medicare.  

Hoefner said Republican members of the House remain divided over the farm bill, with some wanting deeper cuts to food stamp spending than the $16 billion over 10 years that the House Agriculture Committee approved. And some also want to split the agricultural titles of the farm bill from the nutrition title that includes food stamp spending.

That was tried in the past, but Republican leaders, including Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, worked to keep the two issues tied together.

"They should quietly figure out who the next Bob Dole would be," Hoefner said.

Hoefner, whose group focuses on conservation and beginning farmer issues, not food stamps, said any remaining farm bill that's split from nutrition spending would very likely have tough payment limits on agricultural programs.

The farm bill likely would face a gauntlet of amendments from both fiscal conservative Republicans in suburban districts and from urban Democrats, Hoefner believes. "What that would look like, I have no idea, but it would be different from what we have now."

Like Farmers Union's president, Dale Moore a lobbyist with American Farm Bureau Federation, hasn't given up hope on a farm bill this year. "The optimist in me is hopeful we'll find the right combination to move something forward," he told Agriculture.com.

"The critical issue is how you get to conference," he said, referring to the meetings between House and Senate agriculture committees that must take place to iron out differences between two versions of a farm bill.

If that doesn't happen, plan B would push the process into early next year, he said. Because the elections didn't change the makeup of the House or Senate dramatically, the agriculture committees he hopes that the committees can "pick up from where they left off and get it done quickly next year."

Moore said that if the bill is passed before the Congressional Budget Office releases its baseline for federal spending in March, Congress might be able to keep the levels of cuts in farm bill spending that are similar to the bills already passed.

If the farm bill is passed after March, "we would anticipate at least the same level if not a higher level of cuts," he said.

Even if a farm bill is not passed next week, Roger Johnson at Farmers Union believes it's possible that it could be added to any kind of fiscal cliff legislation that Congress passes before the end of this year.

He agrees with Hoefner that Congress has a lot of unsettled issues to deal with. It's possible, Johnson said, that "they'll all be disposed of at the end of the lame duck session in one big package, an omnibus bill."

If that happens, there would be no conference committee meeting, just one-on-one negotiations between key leaders in the House and Senate, he said.

"This is not a clean process," Johnson said.

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