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Farm Bill negotiations continue

WASHINGTON — The four principal negotiators on the farm bill appear to have made some progress at one meeting last week and seem likely to be engaged in intensive negotiations during the two weeks before Congress is scheduled to break for Thanksgiving.

A new farm bill has passed the House and the Senate in different forms, and a conference committee headed by the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Agriculture committees are working to reconcile the differences so that a conference report can be presented to both houses before the end of the year and sent to President Obama for his signature.

The four principals — House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Senate Agriculture ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., met Wednesday for at least two hours and made enough progress that Stabenow said Thursday that they needed to get cost scores on the new proposals from the Congressional Budget Office in order to proceed.

In a brief interview off the Senate floor, Stabenow said her meeting Thursday with the other three principal farm bill negotiators — Cochran, Lucas and Peterson — had been a “really good discussion” about “a broad framework,” but she added, “We’ve got to get scores.”

Asked whether the four principals would meet as soon as the House and Senate return after Veterans Day, Stabenow said that the four are in constant communication.

During the vote on the Employment Non-discrimination Act, which would ban workplace discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees, Stabenow was in discussion on the Senate floor with Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., for at least 15 minutes. Stabenow would not say whether they were talking about the farm bill in that discussion, but she said that she and Hoeven “talk all the time about the farm bill” and that those discussions are “very positive.”

The two weeks beginning today are likely to determine whether Congress will finish the farm bill this year.

Both the House and the Senate will be in session during that time. But both chambers are scheduled to leave Nov. 22 for a Thanksgiving break, and congressional aides have said they are likely to be out of session for two weeks.

That schedule would mean that members would return Dec. 9 for another two-week session before they are expected to depart Dec. 20 for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

Although the House- and Senate-passed farm bills do not expire at the end of December because the congressional session will continue for another year, Congress is under pressure to finish the farm bill by then, in part to avoid another round of headlines about milk prices skyrocketing if permanent farm laws from 1938 and 1949 go into effect.

Congress only has until Jan. 15 to figure out how to fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year or face another government shutdown, as the continuing resolution that funds the government at the present time expires on that date.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said that the Senate is expected to come back into session Jan. 6. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has said the House will come back into session Jan. 7.

A congressional conference committee on the budget is trying to come up with an overall budget plan that would provide a framework for the new continuing resolution, and that committee is supposed to finish its report by Dec. 13.

Stabenow sits on the budget conference committee. She said that she expects House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis, to make a proposal “on a path forward” to the conferees this week.

Peterson said in a radio interview Nov. 6 that Stabenow had mentioned the possibility of the farm bill being included in a budget bill, an idea he dislikes. Peterson also said the four principals are continuing to debate whether payments to crop farmers should be made on the basis of historic base acreage or current plantings.

That interview took place before the meeting of the four principals Nov. 6.

The House was out of session last week, but Peterson and Lucas returned to Washington for the meeting. Peterson claimed credit for convincing Lucas, who had scheduled two days of town hall meetings in his district, to return to Washington to sandwich in one day of the conference between those meetings.

Peterson said in the radio interview that after the meeting he intended to go hunting.

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