Lawmakers frustrated, optimistic about farm bill


But Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp both say they'd rather have no farm bill passed than another short-term extension that takes the pressure off House and Senate negotiators to craft a deal.

"The good news is, I think we're in a position to do it," said Hoeven, a Republican who is also serving on the committee that's trying to blend separate House and Senate versions of the farm bill. "Clearly it can be done. But we don't have it until it's done. So for me we just have to push it on."

Before it left on Thursday, the Republican-controlled House approved a short-term extension that would have stretched some provisions of the last farm bill into early next year. But the Democratically controlled Senate has no plans to take up an extension, an approach that both Hoeven and Heitkamp support.

"The last thing we want to do is take any of the pressure off," Heitkamp said.

House and Senate negotiators, meanwhile, plan to continue to meet even with the House done with its business for the year.

Congress is trying to enact its first farm bill since a 2008 deal that expired in September 2012 and was eventually extended until the end of September of this year. The House and Senate have passed different versions of the five-year, roughly $500 billion bill, but with significant differences over crop subsidies and how much to cut food stamps. One urgent, year-end concern for negotiators had been the expiration of dairy subsidies on Jan. 1 that could have meant a spike in milk prices.

But negotiators have received assurances from the Department of Agriculture that it can prevent milk prices from spiking before the end of January and all sides are hopeful of an agreement by then. Hoeven said that assurance, and the fact that negotiators are close to a deal, made him fine with leaving without a bill voted into law.

"I feel the sooner we get it done the better," Hoeven said. "But ... I feel like we are finally getting an agreement on some of the big issues."

For North Dakota, the lack of an extension or a larger agreement means at least another month of continued uncertainty for ranchers, who have been without emergency protections for more than a year.

Disaster programs for ranchers are included in both the House and Senate versions of the farm bill and are all but certain to be included in a compromise. But the provisions have expired and weren't in place when a surprise early October blizzard killed thousands of cattle in South Dakota and parts of North Dakota. That has underscored the risks for ranchers and lawmakers alike.

North Dakota's senators also noted the short-term extension passed by the House didn't include support for ranchers.

"The extension does nothing for ranchers," Heitkamp said. "It wouldn't give them their money. That might have been a different kind of bill."

Heitkamp and Hoeven said the short-term extension also would have allowed politically contentious subsidies called direct payments to continue. Those subsidies are paid to farmers whether they plant or not. Conservatives and other groups have pushed for less federal spending on such farm programs, and both the House and Senate farm bills would eliminate the subsidies and create new ones.

Heitkamp said that, even though she was optimistic a deal would soon be reached, she understood and shared the exasperation of her constituents.

"I think my constituents don't understand why it's taken over a year and a half to get a new agreement," said Heitkamp, who campaigned for office in part on a promise to push for a new farm bill.

She added, "What we're operating under is just an extension of some good policy and a lot of bad policy. What I want to be able to say is that we're not going to kick the can down the road."

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