Stabenow Eyes Adding Farm Bill to Fiscal Cliff Deal

Lawmakers see fiscal cliff as one last chance to pass five-year farm bill.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) arrives at a Dec. 5, 2012, news conference on Capitol Hill, flanked by Sens. Mark Begich (D-AK) and Charles Schumer (D-NY).
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Since it expired in September, Congress has not advanced a comprehensive farm bill, but that could be changing soon if Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow of Michigan has her way.

Without a five-year ag bill, some dairy farmers have been among the hardest hit as a safety net programs have expired and cattle farmers struggled over the summer without a drought relief program. Other important benefactors of the legislation, however, have yet to notice its expiration. Farmers needing crop insurance have been able to access it and food assistance programs have continued to be paid for through other funding channels.

Not to mention, Washington's been a little preoccupied with how to stop nearly $1.2 trillion in automatic funding cuts from taking hold in January.

Yet as the fiscal cliff takes center stage in Congress, Stabenow has used the opportunity to remind her colleagues the five-year farm bill, which is stalled in the House, could be the solution to help lawmakers veer away from the fiscal cliff.

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The Senate version of the bill, which passed with bipartisan support in June saves $23 billion with cuts to nutritional assistance programs and farm subsidies over 10 years. The House version of the bill could potentially save $35 billion and passed out of committee, but has yet to come to the floor for a vote.

"The farm bill is one of the only bills that provides substantial deficit reduction that passed the Senate this year," Stabenow says. "It only makes sense that this deficit reduction bill would be included in a larger deficit reduction agreement."

Stabenow's counterpart, House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma has also signaled a willingness to move the farm bill forward on the fiscal cliff's coattails.

"Whether it is the 23 billion from the Senate bill or the 35 billion in entitlement reform and savings in the House version, [and] if there is indeed some kind of big agreement worked out to address the national debt," the farm bill is a good place to start, he said during an interview on AgriTalk radio.

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Agriculture groups, desperate to see a farm bill pass before the end of the year, say they are doing all they can to pressure lawmakers to wrap the farm bill into a fiscal cliff bargain

The National Farmer's Union is among the growing chorus asking President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner to include the farm bill in their deficit reduction plan.

"There is a simple way to avoid the proverbial fiscal cliff and that is to pass what many can agree on now: raise additional revenues but also reduce expenditures. Besides increasing some taxes, strategic cuts should be made to government spending, and among them should be the inclusion of a five-year farm bill," says Roger Johnson, the president of the National Farmers Union.

For many groups, getting a farm bill passed before the first of the year remains their top priority. And with time running out, the fiscal cliff looks to be the last way it could happen before the 113th Congress is sworn in and Congress must start from scratch.

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"This is a no brainier for White House and House Republicans to grab it. It is a package deal," says Jess Peterson, vice president of the National Cattlemen's Association.

Any savings found in the farm bill, however, will merely be a small step toward deficit reduction.

House Republicans initial offer to avoid the fiscal cliff called for $2.2 trillion in savings over the next 10 years while the House version of the Farm bill would only contribute $35 billion and the Senate version would only turn over $23 billion in savings over the next decade.

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  • Lauren Fox is a political reporter for U.S. News & World Report. She can be reached at lfox@usnews.com or you can follow her on Twitter @foxreports.