A final version of the farm bill, which accounts for billions of dollars in federal spending and has lingered on the congressional to-do list for two years, is expected to be unveiled as early as Monday, with final House passage likely, according to several aides familiar with the talks.
If an agreement is finalized Monday, senior House aides said that Republican leaders will bring the measure up for a vote, where senior aides think it will pass with sufficient bipartisan support. The bill would then move to the Senate and probably be approved before a mid-February recess.
“We remain optimistic that we can reach agreement in time to be on the floor next week,” House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said in a message to his colleagues last weekend. The message asked members working on the legislation to return to Washington in time for a possible meeting Monday morning. Aides later said that signatures of support for the compromise were being collected in case not enough lawmakers return in time.
The legislation couples billions of dollars in funding for food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, with myriad concerns regarding all aspects of farming, from price-support programs to food-labeling details to the treatment of livestock. Supporters note that the bill affects about 16 million jobs in the agricultural sector, making it one of the largest jobs bills Congress has debated in recent years.
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Final passage of the bill would cap years of sensitive talks led by Senate Democrats and House Republicans. Negotiations teetered on the brink of collapse last year when the Republican-led House split the omnibus bill and held separate votes to dramatically cut food-stamp funding and then deal with most farming-related policy.
More recently, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, threatened to not allow votes on the bill if it included a government dairy price-support program that he called “Soviet-style” but has been backed by members of both parties.
With thousands of pages of policy to write, staff members on both sides of Capitol Hill spent the weekend managing remaining areas of concern.
Aides said that talks were still focused on settling concerns about whether to end price controls on the dairy industry. Boehner and other Republicans argue that the program has cost taxpayers billions of dollars and needlessly drives up the cost of milk, cheese and yogurt. But dairy-state lawmakers from both parties argue that some kind of government support system is needed to bolster dairy farmers during downturns.
Talks were also focused on settling concerns over how to label livestock born in places such as Canada or Mexico and raised and slaughtered in the United States. New federal “country of origin labeling” rules, which took effect last year, require explanations of where a meat product was born, raised and slaughtered. The rules have been challenged in federal court by the livestock industry amid concerns that they could upset trade relations with Canada and Mexico.
The sensitive subject of food-stamp money was settled weeks ago. Plans call for eliminating about $9 billion in SNAP funding during the next decade by tweaking the rules of a federal heating-assistance program that some states use to determine a person’s eligibility for food aid, according to aides familiar with the negotiations.