Farm bill may help Congress avert the ‘fiscal cliff’

Savings in the stalled legislation could ease other budget trimming

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A multiyear farm bill that has stalled in Congress could be part of a solution to avoid the looming “fiscal cliff” — if party leaders decide they need its spending cuts to count toward an overall deficit reduction package.

A five-year, $500 billion farm bill, approved by the Senate in June with bipartisan support, would trim at least $23 billion in agricultural subsidies, land-conservation spending and other programs over the next decade, compared with the most recent farm bill that expired at the end of September. The bill has been rejected by House Republicans.

Another version of the bill that cleared the House Agriculture Committee in July would save $35 billion, though partisan and intraparty bickering have prevented it from receiving a full floor vote.

Both proposals call for cuts to the $80-billion-a-year food stamps program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which typically is included in farm bills.

Farm bill savings could be used to help mitigate potential damage to the economy if expiring George W. Bush-era tax breaks and cuts to defense and domestic programs kick in as scheduled in early January — a scenario dubbed the “fiscal cliff.”

Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat who chairs the Senate budget committee and is a member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, has said there is a growing willingness to at least consider including the farm bill in a solution to avoid the fiscal cliff.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat, chairwoman of the Senate committee, has suggested the two issues should be linked, saying if Congress can pass a farm bill this year the move would “create the trust and momentum we need to overcome gridlock and solve the challenges our country faces.”

“Passing a bipartisan farm bill that reduces the deficit by $23 billion is a significant first step in meeting the critical deficit reduction challenges our country must face head-on this year,” she said earlier this month.

And Rep. Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, told AgriTalk radio that while party leaders have several ways to handle the farm bill, “it could be folded into a fiscal cliff bill, whatever that might be.”

Mr. Peterson added he’s hopeful a new multiyear farm bill can be brokered during the lame-duck session because “I really think [party leaders] want to get this off their plate by the end of the year.”

But Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican and a member of the Senate agriculture panel, isn’t so sure, telling reporters Tuesday that while it’s possible a farm bill may be paired with a fiscal cliff package, he expects it likely will be done as a stand-alone measure.

When Congress recessed in September for several weeks ahead of the November elections, its members uncharacteristically let the existing five-year farm bill expire without a replacement. Such measures typically are among the most bipartisan legislative matters on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers from agricultural states and districts — despite party — come together to ensure their success.

Some agriculture programs, such as crop insurance, have continued under a separate authorization. And funding for the food stamp program was included in a six-month stopgap bill to fund the federal government that Congress passed in September.

But some dairy farmers say they’re already feeling a pinch, as the Department of Agriculture’s Milk Income Loss Contract Program, which compensates dairy producers when domestic milk prices fall below a specified level, expired after Sept. 30.

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