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Peterson: Farm bill talks close

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WASHINGTON — After months of doubt, the top House Democrat in ongoing negotiations says lawmakers are a near a deal that would pave the way for passing a farm bill in the next month.

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Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, one of four House and Senate negotiators working behind the scenes on a compromise between the two chambers, said the framework of a farm bill deal could be finished before the House adjourns for the year Friday, pushing a full vote sometime into January.

Crucially, Peterson said the negotiators have agreed on how much to cut from food stamps – one of the largest sticking points between the House and Senate. Peterson declined to provide a number, but said the deal hews “substantially closer to the Senate’s” targeted cuts of $4 billion over the next decade rather than the House’s bill, which would slash $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Peterson guessed that change will still be one of the major issues when the bill goes to House and Senate floors for a vote, which he said could be as early as the second week of January. The deal would have to be passed by the farm bill’s conference committee before heading for a full vote.

“I think it will pass the Senate, but I cannot guarantee you it will pass the House,” Peterson said in a meeting with the Forum’s Editorial Board on Monday. “They are not going to be happy with the food stamp cuts.”

Peterson said he’s confident he can secure “yes” votes from at least half of the House Democrats — important if many Republicans, who control the House, balk at the smaller-than-expected food cuts to food stamps.

Just last week, things looked grim for the farm bill, a massive package of subsidies for farmers, plus food stamps and other programs. Citing little progress, House Speaker John Boehner urged lawmakers to pass a one-month extension of the current farm bill.

But even as a deal emerges, a short-term extension may still be necessary to avoid skyrocketing milk prices that could come as dairy subsidies expire at the end of the year.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., a member of the conference committee, said he prefers not to pass a short-term extension and “keep the pressure on” passing the farm bill before budget talks consume Washington again in January.

He said he thinks the U.S. Department of Agriculture could make some temporary fixes in early January to keep milk prices down.

Hoeven said he hopes the committee can approve its report by the end of the week and move it to the Senate, which could pass the bill before the Senate adjourns for the year late next week.

“I think we’re basically there, unless something goes up on us,” Hoeven said. 

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