Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts predicted Thursday that farm bill negotiators could have a deal by Monday and said they’re working on a nutrition title that blends ideas from the House and Senate bills.
“We’re close now; we’re closer than we’ve ever been before,” the Kansas Republican said, adding: “I’m very happy about the progress we’ve made.”
Roberts said the nutrition title that is being negotiated – one of the major sources of controversy – is a “mix” of the Senate and House proposals. House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) gave the same assessment in an interview with POLITICO. That suggests a broader compromise may be imminent as lawmakers try to meld the House measure with the Senate version.
The leaders of the Senate and House Agriculture committees expressed a renewed spirit of cooperation as they work to produce a conference report to allow enough time for the compromise to clear both chambers before the end of the lame-duck session. As of Friday, there will be just 12 joint legislative days remaining in the session, though it’s possible leadership could add more time to the schedule.
Everybody sees how much time is needed once the four of us agree to it, and that’s the next step … for the four of us to agree to it,” Conaway told POLITICO. “We’re going to get this thing done soon.”
Conaway said staff continue to meet and are making progress, and Roberts said the four top negotiators are holding talks via telephone.
“We’ve got some regulatory issues toward the end that we’ve got to get hashed out,” Conaway added. “There are a few things, but we’re darn close.”
Neither chairman would get into details of potential compromises that are in the works. “I’m not going to give anything away at this stage,” Conaway said.
The newfound optimism from the chairmen came amid a pressure-packed week of discussions and marked a departure from the sniping of a day earlier. On Wednesday, Roberts and Conaway traded jabs over who was to blame for the lack of an agreement. Both accused the other of taking a long time to respond to proposals.
Roberts had said Wednesday that he, Senate Agriculture ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) were all on the same page and ready to cut a deal, but that Conaway was holding out over concerns related to at least six titles, including the nutrition, conservation and commodities sections. Sources say, however, that the dynamic is more complicated and varies by issue.
Conaway, in turn, questioned on Wednesday why Roberts had lashed out at him in public, arguing that negative statements made to the media were counterproductive.
But Thursday brought a change in tone. In speaking with reporters, Roberts was much more cheerful than he was earlier this week.
Asked Thursday whether tensions with Conaway were continuing, Roberts responded: “Absolutely not. I love Mike; I love Mike – and I love Ike.” He later told reporters that things have changed over the last 24 hours and that negotiators are working together.
“Things have really progressed a lot more smoothly in the last day,” he said.
Top negotiators will have to keep working together to settle policy disagreements in the conservation title. “It has to be worked out with Senator Stabenow and Congressman Peterson,” Roberts said, explaining that the disagreement centers on the acreage cap for the Conservation Reserve Program.
The House and Senate measures called for different acreage limits under CRP. Peterson wants to see a significant increase in the cap; it’s his top conservation priority. But the dilemma is that increasing the total acreage available for enrollment in CRP requires that the rental rate that is paid to farmers to take acreage out of cultivation has to be lowered to pay for the rise.
There is concern that lifting the acreage cap could result in the rental rate being lowered to the point where farmers don’t find it advantageous to participate in the program.
The Senate bill would increase the existing CRP acreage cap by 1 million acres, bringing it to 25 million acres. It would lower the rental rate to 85.5 percent of the county rental rate. The House version calls for the cap to be raised to 29 million acres, and would push the rental rate to 80 percent of the county rate.
Roberts said the disagreement over CRP could be overcome. “These are not things we can’t work out,” he said.
Speaking of the overall talks, Roberts didn’t say the Big Four were clear of all roadblocks, but his optimism was plain.
“I hope that there’s no more big-time obstacles,” he said. “We’ll find out, but I think we’re in a better place – a much better place.”
Conaway, for his part, was upbeat but laser-focused on the clock. “We’re running out of time,” he said.
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