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Farm bill at the cliff

With time to reconcile differences between a Senate and House Agriculture Committee farm bill running out, a bipartisan group of 33 senators today urged the Senate leadership to push for including its version of a farm bill in any year-end package of legislation that would deal with the so-called fiscal cliff of expiring tax cuts and reduced federal spending.

"With each passing day, the difficulty of enacting a farm bill before the end of this Congress grows. Congress must do the responsible thing and pass a full, five-year reform farm bill. Accordingly, we urge you to consider folding in the Senate’s strong bipartisan bill in any end-of-year package," said their letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

The effort, led by Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and John Hoeven (R-ND), has the backing of nine Republicans, 23 Democrats, and Independent Senator Joe Lieberman.

It comes as leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees apparently were still negotiating over differences in the commodity title.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) a committee member and former chairman, suggested that differences remain.

"I've been talking to Senator (Debbie) Stabenow (the committee chairwoman) and Senator Pat Roberts (ranking Republican) about this," he told during a press conference. "We're all behind the Senate bill."

A House-backed target price program would offer more support for peanuts and rice than the Senate's original bill, which puts emphasis on revenue protection programs supported by corn and soybean commodity groups.

"Most of us feel that is not a way to go," Harkin said of the target price program.

The Senate bill has commodity and revenue payment program limits of $100,000 per farm couple and tough rules requiring active engagement in farming to receive commodity payments. The bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee does not.

"The payment limits - everybody is pretty strong on that," Harkin said.

Harkin was among those signing the letter, as did Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD), who said in a statement Thursday, “The Senate-passed farm bill gives producers long-term certainty and provides necessary assistance to producers affected by this year’s devastating drought. Not only that, but our bill actually reduces the deficit and can help fiscal cliff negotiators meet their goals. The House has shown no interest in considering a farm bill on their own, so we need to find a way for them to act before the end of the year. South Dakota farmers and ranchers deserve the certainty of a five-year farm bill.”

The letter was signed by some retiring Senators, including Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) and former Ag Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-IN).

It was not signed by either of the current ag committee leaders, Stabenow and Roberts, nor by two Southern senators who have been advocating the interests of peanut and rice farmers, Saxby Chamblis (R-GA) and Thad Cochran (R-MS).

Stabenow met with members of her committee behind closed doors later Thursday morning, and there was speculation that some progress had been made on the commodity title.

But one ag group lobbyist remains skeptical that a deal can be done in time to wrap a farm bill into any fiscal-cliff legislation, which also seems far from a sure thing.

Negotiations between the House and Senate agriculture committee leaders would need to be finished soon in order to put both bills together, if that's going to happen, he said.

"I think by Monday morning we should know the answer," he said. He's not certain that House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) has the backing of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to negotiate changes to the committee's bill, which hasn't come to a vote in the full House of Representatives.

And even if a bill is hammered out behind closed doors, the Congressional Budget Office would have to estimate its costs and savings before giving the legislation to Boehner and President Barack Obama to consider as part of any savings in federal spending. The Senate bill shaves an estimated $23 billion over 10 years, while the House Bill reduces spending by about $35 billion.

One of the key differences in spending is how much each version trims from USDA's SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly called food stamps. The Senate trims $4 billion over a decade while the House bill cuts $16 billion.

Senator Al Franken (D-MN), another signer of the letter who isn't on the Agriculture Committee, told reporters Thursday that "I think, probably in the negotiations, you're going to see something in between the two figures."

Franken doesn't favor more cuts from the Senate bill.

"I don't want to balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable people," he said.

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