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House leadership floats one-year extension of farm bill; vote possible next week

WASHINGTON — Driven in part by drought relief, the House Republican leadership may schedule a vote next week on a one-year extension of the current farm bill, but advocates for a five-year measure hope a House floor vote moves them closer to a 2012 farm bill this year.

Members of Congress are feeling the heat to help farmers and ranchers who have been brutalized by the latest drought conditions. The House Agriculture Committee, which reported out its bill this month, has been calling on top Republicans to find floor time for the farm bill before Congress leaves town for August recess and the current law expires Sept. 30.

News reports say House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) may be inclined to schedule legislation next week that would allow for a one-year extension. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, suggested he would back a one-year extension if it would lead to a conference and ultimate passage of the bill this year. The issue surfaced during a July 25 business meeting of the House Agriculture Committee.

"We do not support a one-year extension," said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy, United Fresh Produce Association, and co-chair of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance. Some programs would be penalized from a straight reauthorization, including the $15 million-a-year specialty crop research program.

"But we want to get it done this year, and if it gets us to conference we think it's worth a try," he said.

This is how it could play out: the House passes a one-year extension, leaving time for a House measure and the Senate-passed bill to be negotiated among the House and Senate agriculture committees. A compromise bill could end up a candidate for action during the crowded lame duck session, which occurs after the presidential election.

The 2012 farm bill could be an attractive candidate for the lame duck session because it comes with significant cost savings that could help pick up the tab for other costly tax bills, Mr. Guenther explained. But it all depends on the outcome of the election and the tone of the lame duck session.

While the House Agriculture Committee-passed bill and the Senate measure sets up specialty crop programs nicely, there is no shortage of groups squabbling over the other provisions. Conservative groups are asking House leadership to bury the farm bill because it's too costly, and some Democrats are refusing to back cuts into the food stamp program. It also has fueled battles between different farm commodities.

One thing is certain, Mr. Guenther predicted, the budget climate would be tougher next year for specialty crop programs. "I don't care who's in charge, the budget will be more difficult to deal with next year."