LEADERS of the House and Senate agriculture committees indicated that they're nearing the markup of the farm bill, which may happen in May.
Last year, the Senate moved its bill first, but this year, leaders indicated that the House might make the first attempt to restart the farm bill process.
House Agriculture Committee ranking member Rep. Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) said he expects a markup in the House to happen after the first week of May.
Meanwhile, Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) said she's "anxious" to start the official markup of the Senate bill by the end of April but hasn't completed negotiations on how to address concerns of southern producers, so the markup likely will happen later this spring.
The Senate's version last year did not receive many votes from southern legislators, who were upset with how crops in the region were handled. Stabenow said she's discussing how to hand-target prices on rice and peanuts and make sure the program doesn't distort markets. Senators are also looking at whether base or planted acres should determine target prices, she said.
Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Sen. Thad Cochran (R., Miss.) denied reports that he's holding up the chamber's markup and added that he "won't move to postpone it."
Cochran adds a new dimension to the Senate farm bill discussions following clear cooperation last year from former ranking member Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.).
Stabenow said she will still try to achieve the $23 billion in savings of last year's Senate proposal. The American Farm Bureau Federation also updated its policy recommendations last week, with targeted savings of $23 billion.
Peterson conceded that the House still has its differences to settle on the bill as leaders struggle to come up with savings since the Congressional Budget Office issued a less favorable update to its score of last year's farm bill that reduced its touted savings.
Peterson said the hang-ups lie with Title I commodity programs, dairy policy and food stamps. He explained that although food stamps took a lot of heat for last year's farm bill failure, politics largely got in the way of a final deal, especially among Republicans, who were hopeful that the elections would bring a change in political power in the White House and Senate.
Although there is much discussion about reducing fraud in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Peterson claimed that it isn't a big issue. Peterson supports changing the categorical eligibility requirements of SNAP that allow states to set the poverty level at which individuals can qualify for the federal food assistance.
He said of the 47 million individuals on food stamps, 10 million to 12 million receive a mere $10-20/month, which doesn't help the individual families much but does create a fiscal strain because of the large number who are eligible.
Peterson added that he told House Agriculture Committee chair Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) that he "wants to be able to have lots of say in whatever we end up doing" on SNAP and doesn't want it to turn into an ideological war.
Stabenow stuck with the Senate's lower target of $4.5 billion in SNAP savings.
Peterson said it would be helpful if Speaker of the House John Boehner (R., Ohio) and Senate majority leader Harry Reid came together with a target number for how much to cut food stamp benefits. "Give us a number, and we can figure it out," he said.
Last year, there was talk that the farm bill could move as part of sequestration or budget packages because of the savings it provided. However, Peterson downplayed any idea of moving the bill in that fashion this year and said there will be "no grand bargain" on budget measures.
Leaders agree that if something isn't accomplished by August, it will be very difficult to finalize a farm bill.