House and Senate farm bill leaders edged closer Thursday, joined in a last ditch effort —together with Agriculture Secy. Tom Vilsack—to put in place a new five-year plan before the end of this Congress.
Vilsack played host to the gathering of the top four Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. And he told reporters later that “absolutely” he remained optimistic that a bill can be completed before Dec. 31 and the focus must be on that goal, not a simple extension.
“What I was interested in doing today was basically get all four folks who are critical to this process in the room at the same time talking to each other and we’ve accomplished that,” Vilsack said. “There is a commitment to work and try to get this resolved. The countryside needs a five year farm bill, rural America needs a five year farm bill.”
The fact that Vilsack felt compelled to intercede reflects the drift that has set in since last June when the Senate surprised many doubters by passing its farm bill with strong bipartisan support in June. The House Ag panel quickly followed with its own version –only to be blocked from coming to the floor by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the GOP leadership. And in the months since, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) has taken himself more out of the mix, awaiting a signal from Boehner.
Much as Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) insists that the four have never stopped talking, Vilsack clearly felt it was “progress” to have them all in the same room. And as part of the effort to get a House-Senate deal, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ag Committee, appears to be showing more flexibility in shaping the commodity title to include some form of price supports important to Southern producers—something he has strongly opposed in the past.
“There is a concerted effort to get a five year farm bill,” Roberts said after the meeting held at the Agriculture Department.
“We are looking forward to working together to get a five-year farm bill. We want to get a farm bill done,” Stabenow said.
Just as Roberts may be moving, Lucas himself signaled a little more independence in reply to a question asking if he felt free to be part of the renewed talks “without Boehner assigning” him to do so. “As chairman of my committee I always have the option and the ability to work on good policy and legislation,” Lucas said.
For his part, Vilsack sidestepped any question about what authority the White House might have given him to negotiate on food stamp savings in the bill—a major demand from House Republicans and likely issue in the deficit reduction talks now between Boehner and President Barack Obama.
“We didn’t get into specifics and I am not going to get into specifics today,” the secretary said, preferring to characterize his role as a “facilitator.”
“It was about facilitating that conversation,” Vilsack said. “What we wanted to do today was accomplished, which was to get everybody in the room at the same time at the same place talking to one another. That’s been accomplished. That’s progress.”
“There is just a consistent drumbeat, they meaning the countryside wants a five year farm bill…There was a commitment on the part of all four of the folks in that room today to look at a five year farm bill. That’s what to focus on, a five year farm bill. It wasn’t on an extension.