by Jerry Hagstrom, DTN Political Correspondent
WASHINGTON (DTN) — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees met Thursday to discuss prospects for a five-year farm bill to be included in legislation dealing with the “fiscal cliff,” while Democrats and Republicans continued to spar over how those larger talks are going.
He “absolutely” believes a farm bill can be passed before Dec. 31, Vilsack said, adding, “We're committed in this department to getting a five-year bill.”
But when Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Senate ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., emerged from Vilsack's office, they did not make a joint statement. Although all declared commitment for a five-year farm bill, they were vague about whether they believe it can be passed this year and how they can move the process forward.
Vilsack initially invited the four to lunch in his office, but the meeting had to be postponed until 3 p.m. because the Senate had votes at noon. The group met for about 40 minutes.
Roberts left first, telling reporters, “There's a concerted effort to get a five-year farm bill.”
Stabenow, Lucas and Peterson came out together, and Stabenow spoke first.
“We are looking forward to getting a five-year bill,” she said. Asked whether the farm bill could be part of the fiscal cliff bill, she noted that the farm bill would provide “a lot of savings.”
Asked whether this was the beginning of a new round of negotiations, Stabenow said they had been meeting all along.
Lucas, who has spoken the least to the press since the election and has been the most cautious about prospects for passing a bill this year, said as a committee chairman he does have the authority to conduct negotiations with his counterparts.
Noting that the members of the House Republican leadership are “consumed by the overall negotiations,” he added that he is “hopeful they will clarify” their views on the farm bill soon.
Peterson made no comment to the press except that he was “with” the others in what they are trying to accomplish.
When asked whether they had discussed proposed cuts to food stamps — a big area of difference between the Senate, which has a small cut, the House, which has a larger cut, and the administration, which opposes all cuts — both Stabenow and Vilsack said they did not get into details.
Vilsack spoke to the reporters after the congressional leaders left, and said he thought getting the four leaders together in his office was “critical” to getting a bill passed this year.
“There is a commitment to work and get all this resolved,” Vilsack said. “We will do what we need to do.”
Vilsack noted that he had met this week with the Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee and the Agricultural Technical Advisory Committee for Trade, and that the members of those committees, who usually talk about trade issues, had emphasized the importance of passing a five-year farm bill.
Meanwhile, there were aspects of the negotiations between the Congress and the White House that bore reminders of the failed supercommittee talks for which the Agriculture committees prepared a farm bill proposal.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said “no substantive progress” has been made in two weeks in “fiscal cliff” talks between the House and White House — and that he was disappointed Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on Thursday did not deliver any specific plan for cutting spending in a meeting at the Capitol, reported National Journal Daily.
But Democratic leaders predicted confidently that Republicans will eventually come around to the idea of raising tax rates on the wealthy and preventing tax hikes on the middle class, National Journal Daily also reported.
The Senate Democrats' “message man,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he's optimistic they can get a deal by Christmas.
“Look, we don't expect the Republicans to be enthusiastic and start cheering about a deal that includes higher rates on the wealthiest Americans,” Schumer said. “They're not going to openly concede on this point this far out from the deadline, but they see the handwriting on the wall.”
Geithner included farm bill cuts in a list of items that the administration would include as upfront cuts in a presentation he made to Boehner on Thursday, but Geithner offered no details, the New York Times reported today.
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