Negotiations between the Senate and House agriculture committees ground to a halt on Dec. 13.
As the Senate Agriculture Committee met in closed session, Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said the Senate had made the best offer it could, and House Agriculture Committee leaders accused the senators of bad faith in the negotiations.
The agriculture committee chairmen and ranking members are trying to finish a farm bill to be attached to a fiscal cliff bill to deal with taxes and the federal deficit, but Stabenow also said the situation is "very difficult" because House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has not signaled whether he wants to include the farm bill in a fiscal cliff.
Stabenow said she has no confidence that the speaker is backing up House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla. "There has to be leadership in the House to care about rural America and to back up their leaders," she said.
Meanwhile, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters that the House and Senate should finish the bill because President Barack Obama and Boehner will not wait for them if they reach an agreement on a larger bill to deal with taxes, the budget deficit and entitlements.
"The risk the Agriculture leaders face is that the speaker and the president could get in a room. They could be so many billions away from a deal," Vilsack said at a news conference, adding that Obama and Boehner might decide to take "x" amount out of agriculture without much consultation or the inclusion of a new farm bill if one is not written.
Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Max Baucus, D-Mont., spearheaded a bipartisan letter to Senate leadership Dec. 13, asking them to move a full, five-year farm bill by the end of the year. More than 30 senators joined the effort.
Leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees are in disagreement over the commodity title of the farm bill.
The Senate-passed farm bill includes an Agricultural Risk Coverage program that would pay farmers for "shallow losses" that crop insurance would not cover. That program is favored by corn and soybean producers and smaller crops producers.
The House Agriculture Committee-passed bill includes a shallow loss program, but offers farmers a Price Loss Program that would pay farmers if prices fell below certain target levels, and raises target prices from current levels. Rice and peanut growers favor the House approach, while wheat growers are split over which approach is best.
Looking for Common Ground
The Senate has made an offer to the House that would allow for a target-price-based program and would raise the baseline spending for rice, peanuts and wheat.
Emerging from a 45-minute closed-door meeting with 12 members of her committee, Stabenow called the meeting "very positive," saying members of the committee had expressed unity behind what the Senate has offered the House.
She said the House needs to acknowledge that the Senate has passed a farm bill, while the House bill has only gone through the House Agriculture Committee.
"We have passed a bill through the entire body," Stabenow said. "They haven't passed it through the House."
The offer to which Stabenow referred was to increase baseline spending for rice, peanuts and wheat to 75 percent of the difference between the House and Senate baselines for those crops.
"That's as far as we can go without some pretty serious discussion," Stabenow said, adding that she would communicate that message to Lucas and House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
Stabenow, noting that the House had made a return offer, but that it was unacceptable to her committee members, said there is "only so far I can go without losing the support of my members.
"There is a philosophical difference" between the House and Senate committees, Stabenow noted. But she also said, "I don't think we are that far apart. There are only a few differences, but they are significant."
Lucas and Peterson said in a joint statement, "When the Senate Ag Committee starts to negotiate in good faith with their House counterparts rather than through the press, we stand ready to work with them.
"Contrary to what they would have you believe, this is not a rice, peanut and wheat issue. Rather, it's about making sure policy is defensible to taxpayers and works for all commodities in all regions of the country. Having made a reasonable offer, we continue to wait for a balanced offer from the Senate so we can sort out the details."
Although the issue of the commodity title has been portrayed as a conflict between the North and the South, senators from both regions backed Stabenow as they emerged from the meeting.
At the Table
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said that what the House Agriculture Committee had offered is "basically their House committee bill." To ask the Senate to accede to the House committee on a bill that has not passed the House is "not responsible," he said.
Asked whether he thinks he will have an opportunity to use a source of funds that he had identified for the farm bill, but was not willing to reveal earlier this year, Conrad only smiled.
Conrad, whose knowledge of the federal budget was important in the development of the 2008 farm bill and who has also been a player in the Senate development of the 2012 bill, will retire when this Congress leaves at the end of the year.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., signaled she hopes the committee leaders will reach an agreement and that the farm bill is within the fiscal cliff deal.
"We'd rather be at the table than be someone's lunch," Klobuchar said.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said, "We are pretty united in a bipartisan way. The House has not come very far for a compromise."
Senate Agriculture ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said that the meeting had been "productive" and that the message was largely unified.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who voted against the Senate bill because he did not think it treated southern crops fairly, said Dec. 13 he thinks there has been a "genuine" effort on both sides. He added that Lucas and Peterson "have legitimate concerns," but said he thinks both House and Senate leaders "are working toward common ground."
Asked whether he thought Congress will finish the farm bill or reach a deal on the fiscal cliff, Chambliss said he didn't know.
"There are lots of balls in the air," Chambliss said. "I've never seen a year-end like this year-end."
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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