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White House deploys economists for farm bill

The White House Rural Council and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack released a report today that could be used to help the House-Senate farm bill conference committee sell their finished product before the final bill comes up for a vote.

"I certainly appreciate the work of the leadership of the conference committee. They've been meeting, as everyone knows," Vilsack said when he took questions from reporters Thursday.

Vilsack told that the conference committee is making progress on resolving almost 90 differences between the House Farm Bill and the Senate version.

When asked about differences in the level of spending each bill would authorize for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Vilsack said, "My suspicion is SNAP is one of the issues that will be last to be addressed."

The two bills are far apart, with the House cutting nearly $40 billion over 10 years and the Senate bill cutting $4 billion.

Vilsack said he was pleased that recent statements from negotiators have been about differences in SNAP policy, instead of levels of spending. "I think if you get the policy right, you get the numbers right," he said.

"We're already seeing reports being issued where the costs of the program are coming down," he said.

Vilsack said he is also pleased that the leaders of the conference committee are trying to finish their work in time to educate other members of Congress about the bill.

Vilsack also said that he had met with representatives of the biofuels industry this week at the White House over the EPA's proposal to lower Renewable Fuel Standard blending mandates in 2014. Vilsack said that he wanted industry leaders to know "that we are committed to this industry" and that USDA is ready to use its resources "to focus on distribution" of biofuels and to help consumers "get more access to higher blends."

The White House report, "The Economic Importance of Passing a Comprehensive Food, Farm, and Jobs Bill," explains the ways the legislation would help the economy. Its Rural Development programs, for example, "would help tackle the $2.1 billion backlog of shovel-ready water/wastewater infrastructure projects in small towns across the country," said the report, which was written by USDA, the President's council of economic advisers, and other administration economists.

Earlier Thursday, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) said that while he still hopes Congress will pass a farm bill this year, "I don't think we're going to have one at the end of this week" from the conference committee negotiators.

Harkin, a past Senate Ag Commmittee chairman who is a member of the conference committee, said that he opposes the House version of a target price program that is also opposed by Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE). But, he said, if the House members of the conference committee insist on that policy, "maybe they'll have to give up on huge cuts to SNAP, Energy, and Conservation."

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