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Budget negotiations, farm bill discussions and Capitol Hill intrigue

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As the federal budget is debated and the lame duck session hurtles towards an end, there is high intrigue on Capitol Hill.

As the federal budget is debated and the lame duck session hurtles towards an end, there is high intrigue on Capitol Hill.

Having been in Washington, D.C., the week of Dec. 10, Jeffery Hall says the farm bill is still receiving much discussion behind the scenes.

On the Senate side, both Arkansas senators are “really working it,” says the associate director of national affairs for the Arkansas Farm Bureau.“They’re working to get something done. That’s true of a lot of Southern senators – everyone says (Georgia Sen. Saxby) Chambliss is pushing hard. The negotiations aren’t pointing policies exactly where (the South) wants them to be but we’re much closer than earlier this year.”

One option being floated: a counter-cyclical program for rice with a target price of just over $13.

Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor “keeps saying to the leaders on the Senate Agriculture Committee – and we appreciate his words – ‘We just need equal treatment.’ It’s obvious that’s having some impact.”

However, even if there’s a $13 counter-cyclical for rice “that’s not where we want to be. That’s because that would basically mean leaving out soybean and corn acres (in the Mid-South).”

Reports are that Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has softened his staunch opposition to providing programs tailored to Southern crops. There has been much speculation that, come January, Roberts will face competition for the ranking member position.

Hall has heard the same speculation and says it wouldn’t be a surprise if a Southern senator takes Roberts’ spot. “It’s a very good possibility that, since (Mississippi Sen. Thad) Cochran has termed out on the Senate Agriculture Appropriations, he could move into that leadership position on the Senate Agriculture Committee.”

What about the chances that there will be an extension of 2008 law versus a new five-year farm bill?

“The way I’d define an extension is a little different,” says Hall. “There’s absolutely zero possibility that there will be a true, straight-across-the-board extension. That’s almost impossible to do.”

A modified one-year bill, however, “is a real possibility. This is another reason there have been compromise proposals coming around in the Senate.

“The modified bill that is a possibility would (include) a reduced direct payment. That reduction would come on the acres you’d collect from. Right now, (the calculation) is at 85 percent of base acres. That would probably drop down into the 80 to 83 percent range.

“Remember, in the first couple of years of the 2008 farm bill (the calculation for direct payments) was made on 83 percent of base acres. That later jumped up to 85 percent.

“I can see where they’d drop that to collect savings to pay for three things. Fruits and vegetables would get additional funding. The livestock disaster title of the SURE program would move retroactively to 2012. There would also be a dairy ‘fix.’ Something absolutely has to be done for dairy.”

No lawmaker wants to face constituents if dairy reverts to 1949 permanent law and the price of milk suddenly spikes to over $8 per gallon. “That would cause major problems in a number of areas,” says Hall. “And that’s why we adamantly oppose the elimination of permanent law. The fear of that is the only hook that we in agriculture have right now to get something done.”

At the same time, budget hardliners in the Republican caucus are still holding John Boehner’s feet to the fire. “The speaker has to balance his positions with his caucus and negotiate with the President to reach an agreement,” says Hall. “I’m convinced that’s the reason (Obama) and Boehner still haven’t come to an agreement yet. It almost makes you feel sorry for him. I wouldn’t want Boehner’s job.”

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