From left, Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., are intercepted by reporters after negotiations on the Farm Bill wrapped up on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday.
WASHINGTON — A New Year’s deadline that could send the price of milk skyward looms over congressional negotiators as they try to reach agreement on a five-year farm bill. They’ve been tripped up by differences over the nation’s food stamp program and how to restructure farm subsidies.
The two chambers have been far apart on both issues for more than two years. But the leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees expressed optimism after a private meeting Wednesday that they may be able to find resolution in time to narrowly avert the expiration of dairy subsidies on Jan. 1. If those subsidies expire, new laws will kick in that could result in decreased dairy supply on the commercial market and higher prices for a gallon of milk.
Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, a Republican on the House-Senate farm bill conference committee, said negotiators could possibly hold a public meeting next week for the conference committee to settle some of the remaining issues before the House leaves for the year on Dec. 13. But with a final deal still elusive, it seems unlikely that Congress will finish the bill before the end of the year.
On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner said the bill should be extended through January while negotiators work out their differences. Boehner also contradicted the optimism of House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who said Wednesday that the two sides had made “great progress.”
“You know, I’ve not seen any real progress on the farm bill,” Boehner said. “And so if we’ve got to pass a one-month extension of the farm bill, I think we ought to be prepared to do that.”
Finding a compromise on cuts to the nation’s $80 billion-a-year food stamp program has been the toughest obstacle over the last two years. The House passed a bill this summer that would cut $4 billion from food stamps — now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — annually and allow states to create new work requirements for some recipients. The Democratic Senate, backed by President Barack Obama, passed a farm bill with $400 million annual cut, or a tenth of the House cut.
Negotiators have discussed as a possibility cracking down further on a practice in some states, of giving low-income people as little as $1 a year in home heating assistance, even when they don’t have heating bills, in order to make them eligible for increased food stamp benefits. The Senate found its $400 million in annual cuts by requiring that recipients receive at least $10 in assistance to make them eligible, while the House doubled that cut by requiring that recipients receive $20 annually — bringing the savings to around $800 million a year.
It’s unclear whether a compromise would include the new work requirements passed by the House, but the Senate is unlikely to go along with those proposals. The Senate has also balked at a House provision to end government waivers that have allowed able-bodied adults without dependents to receive food stamps indefinitely. That proposal has been particularly important to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated Obama’s support for the Senate version of the bill Thursday, calling the House SNAP cuts “unconscionable” and harmful to families across the country.
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