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Peterson optimistic again for farm bill vote

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WILLMAR — After months of stalemate over a new five-year extension of the farm bill, 7th District Congressman Collin Peterson is optimistic that a House and Senate conference committee will hammer out the differences and bring a bill to a vote.

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He believes votes could be held in both chambers by Thanksgiving.

“I can kind of see where the end thing is, but they have to work this out,’’ said Peterson,  a Democrat and ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee. He spoke Friday during a stop in Willmar.

The congressman emphasized that there is still trading to be done to resolve differences. But overall, staff members have 90 percent of the work done on a new bill. “We’re at the point where the members are going to have to make some decisions,’’ he said.

He cautioned that its final approval is anything but a slam dunk. If a bill passes in the House, it will do so with a majority of its votes from Democrats, he said.

The bill likely to emerge will not contain any major surprises.

As expected, direct payments to growers will be ending, he said.

He anticipates that the crop insurance program will remain. Participation will require compliance with conservation programs, despite opposition by the House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla.

Peterson also believes the sodbuster provision will remain: Crop insurance will not be offered to native prairie lands being converted to crop production.

Peterson and Lucas both support a target price program to protect farmers if commodity prices fall. The two would use planted acres, rather than a base acreage, to calculate subsidies if prices fall below target levels.

Peterson would like to see a compromise bill that would allow individual farmers to choose between target price protection or crop insurance.

The congressman said both the House and Senate versions leave the sugar program in place. They also continue beginning farmer programs.

Major differences remain over the dairy program. Peterson is optimistic he has the votes to prevail on dairy, although House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is opposed.

The big debate ahead will be over funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has a letter from 39 senators demanding zero cuts to the program. Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, also doesn’t want to see cuts, Peterson said.

In the House, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., introduced legislation to cut $40 billion from the $80 billion program.

Stabenow has made it known she cannot accept cuts greater than $9 billion.

There is also debate ahead on whether to eliminate the 1949 Farm Bill, which is the permanent law that takes effect if Congress doesn’t approve new five-year extensions. Peterson wants to keep it in place: It forces Congress to act every five years or face the consequences of reverting, he explained.

Also, Peterson said the fight over renewable energy standards is heating up, with petroleum and livestock interests working to roll them back. Peterson said he does not see justification for it. Prices for corn — used in producing ethanol — have fallen back to the point where they were before the current standards took effect.

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