By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Time is running short for farm bill negotiators to wrap up their work and complete the legislation for floor debates and a final vote this year, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee said Wednesday.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told a couple of reporters early Wednesday afternoon that he, Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., are in agreement about how to move ahead. But Roberts alluded that House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, was still proposing some areas of compromise.
"This is a key day," Roberts said. "We've got to decide whether we get a bill or not, or whether we get into proposals all the time. We have three of the principals who agree we can do a bill and will sign it as is. We have one individual who still wants to counter with proposals. That time has run out."
Lawmakers have been working since late summer to come to agreement on the five-year authorizing bills with differences between the House and Senate versions primarily involving work and job-training requirements for single, able-bodied adults on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program aid, but also to reach agreement on differences in provisions in the commodity titles and conservation programs.
Peterson said last week he doesn't want the farm bill to carry over to the new Congress in 2019 because he will likely have several new members on the committee following the election, and it takes time to get up to speed on some of the complexities of farm programs, crop insurance and USDA agencies.
Congress is in session this week, but then goes on Thanksgiving break until Nov. 27. Lawmakers have to approve some key spending bills to keep the government from shutting down before a Dec. 7 deadline. The House right now is scheduled to wrap up the year Dec. 13, and the Senate's target date to end is Dec. 14.
Roberts said congressional staff needs 10 days to get the paperwork done on farm bill language and get cost scores back from the Congressional Budget Office.
"We have a good bill, I think," Roberts said. "To continue to insist on policy changes from the partisan standpoint, I think is terribly counterproductive."
Roberts indicated he would like to see an agreement reached that would allow the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees to meet on Thursday to agree to go forward on a bill. "It's not the best possible bill, but it's the best bill possible," he said. "I think three of us understand that and one individual does not."
Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Roberts and Conaway were talking to try to come to terms. She also reiterated the problems with timing. "We're really up against time," she said. Stabenow added there was a lot of work done by committee staff and agreement was close.
In a leadership news conference for the Senate on Wednesday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said preventing a government shutdown was his top priority for the lame-duck session, but he also said he wanted to complete work on the farm bill.
Conaway and Peterson were more elusive to track down on Wednesday afternoon before the House held some early evening votes. CQ Roll Call had reported late Tuesday that Conaway said his negotiating leverage had evaporated in the midterm elections and GOP leadership in the House had told him to get a bill done.
DTN briefly caught up with Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who chaired the House Ag Committee for the 2014 farm bill. Lucas was confident the bill would get completed soon.
"With the election over with, it's starting to bring some things into focus," Lucas said. "I'm not exactly sure what that focus is, but you know the principal players in the House -- soon-to-be-Chairman Peterson and Chairman Conaway -- are very intense on getting this done. That's a good sign."
Even though the principal negotiators are coming down to the final major sticking points in the legislation, groups continue championing specific provisions or programs in the farm bill:
-- The National Farmers Union called on Congress to ensure the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network is in the final bill to help farmers deal with financial stress and supplement the lack of mental-health professionals in rural America.
-- The Environmental Defense Action Fund, National Wildlife Federation and the Meridian Implementation Fund started running a series of ads in Politico and in newspapers in Kansas, Michigan and Texas calling on Agriculture Committee leaders to "support full conservation funding and the Agriculture Data Act of 2018 in the farm bill to better protect soil, water and wildlife."
-- The Union of Concerned Scientists also kicked off a letter-writing campaign on social media that started generating several tweets on Wednesday: "Tell Congress to pass a strong, science-based farm bill in 2018."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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