The federal farm bill has a long way to go on Capitol Hill and a short time to get there.
The bill, renewed by Congress every five years, passed a major obstacle during the last week of April with a successful 16-5 approval vote by the Senate Agriculture Committee.
That followed a sudden but brief delay, when a key committee review of the bill was abruptly canceled after Senators feared the bill didn't have enough support.
But far bigger hurdles remain.
The 900-page bill now heads to the Senate floor, where approval is far from guaranteed, and even more opposition is expected from the House - which hasn't even begun drafting its own version of the bill.
What will almost surely be difficult and protracted negotiations loom at a particularly bad time this year, because Congress will have a limited attention span this summer due to election-year campaigning needs.
Congress usually works only three days a week (Mondays and Fridays are considered travel days), and there will be occasional weeks off like last week.
Plus, both the House and Senate are scheduled to be out of session for the entire month of August for a summer recess. That leaves little time for long negotiations before the current bill expires on September 30 -- right in the thick of the fall election season.
Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told RTT News she is optimistic of success but acknowledges the intense pressures.
"The big question is in the House," Stabenow said. "We're going to send them a really strong, bipartisan bill, and do everything we can to work with them... The biggest challenge is simply having enough time."
Senate action on the bill must happen fairly quickly, because the House Agriculture Committee hasn't even begun drafting its bill since members wanted to see the Senate version first.
Stark ideological differences between the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House are all but certain, with Republicans likely to protest any provisions they see as overly generous - some have already begun calling for significant cuts to food stamp programs, for example.
In its current form, the bill would be about $23 billion smaller than the current bill, with the following changes:
• Senators have agreed to end the 16-year-old system of direct payments to farmers - currently about $5 billion annually;
• Direct payments would be replaced with a "shallow loss" system being pushed by some committee members, which grants farmers more choices about how payments are calculated;
• Conservation programs would be trimmed and consolidated, saving about $6 billion;
• Eligibility requirements for nutrition programs such as food stamps would be raised, saving $4 billion;
• Crop insurance provisions would be strengthened but redundant programs would be streamlined, saving $15 billion;
• Elimination or streamlining of $1 billion in rural development programs, $770 million in rural development programs, and $20 million in forestry programs.
Significant disagreements remain over commodity pricing for certain crops such as cotton, peanuts, wheat and rice, as well as the safety-net provisions for those farmers.
Senators from Southern and Plains states are pressing for time to resolve those concerns. The bill is generally considered more favorable to Midwestern crops such as corn or soybeans.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., a former chairman of the Agriculture Committee, sees "a huge gap to bridge" before the bill could even pass the Senate.
"You've got commodity (price) issues. You've got very low payment limits that make the limits meaningless. You've got definitions of who qualifies for programs that change dramatically who farms the land -- and that's not a regional issue, that's a national issue that farmers aren't going to like," Chambliss said.
He added, "There's just some major changes that were made, and there will be major differences with what the House comes up with and what we've come up with."
In the past, such differences could be addressed with additional money. But Stabenow and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the top Republican on the panel, have little room to maneuver since this year's bill will be considerably smaller.
Roberts said he understands the uncertainty that farmers are facing as they hear of the difficult debate.
"The farmer is sitting there with no consistency or predictability, with all of these ag lenders to boot," he told RTT News. "Not moving is not an option. But it's an issue because of our budget situation."
The farm bill has expired before and been renewed, most recently in 1996 and again in 2007.
by RTT Staff Writer
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