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With shutdown over, farm bill talks can begin

By Jerry Hagstrom, Forum News Service

WASHINGTON — The House-Senate conference on the farm bill is likely to begin the week of Oct. 28 and might become part of a larger, long-term budget deal, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told Agweek on Oct. 17.

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House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who will chair the conference and held a meeting with Stabenow, House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., also says the conference committee will meet shortly after both houses of Congress are in town at the same time.

After voting Oct. 16 on the continuing resolution to fund the government through Jan. 15, both houses of Congress made plans to leave town. The House is expected to return Oct. 22 through 24, but the Senate will not return until Oct. 28.

Congress was supposed to be out of session last week for a Columbus Day break, but has been in session to deal with the government shutdown and the debt ceiling, and members are eager to return to their states.

Lucas said he was looking forward to the conference because “it’s taken me years to get here.”

The House named its conferees Oct. 12, including Kristi Noem, R-S.D. The Senate had named its conferees Aug. 1, including Democratic Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Republican John Hoeven of North Dakota.

Stabenow said the Oct. 16 meeting primarily was about process and that the first meeting will allow conferees to make opening statements and talk about the process.

The continuing resolution included a provision for the House and Senate budget committees to go to conference to try to work out a long-term plan for the government’s spending and revenues. Farm lobbyists who fear that it will be difficult to reach House-Senate agreement on the farm bill, especially on cuts to food stamps, hope the farm bill might be included in a budget deal that members of Congress would feel forced to support, while others worry that Stabenow, Lucas, Cochran and Peterson would lose control of the farm bill to congressional leadership and President Obama as they work out the larger deal.

Stabenow said “it’s possible” the farm bill will be added to the budget bill, but warned that the greatest issue would be whether the House and the Senate reach an agreement on the budget.

“No other part of the government has offered the budget savings that agriculture has,” Stabenow noted.

As a member of the Senate Budget Committee, Stabenow said she expects to be a conferee on the budget, as well as being the top Senate Democrat on the farm bill conference.

Stabenow noted that the two positions “go very well together” and that the budget conference will deal with “top-line” expenditures and revenues, including agriculture mandatory spending such as food stamps and farm subsidies.

Stabenow said she is certain the farm bill conferees will come to an agreement, but not certain about the budget conferees. Whether the farm bill could be attached to the budget bill would depend on “how it is done,” she said.

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