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Next 5-year farm bill 'not out of the woods yet'

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MOORHEAD, Minn. -- The next five-year farm bill is progressing in the House, and representatives could vote on the legislation in the third week of June, Rep. Collin Peterson said Thursday.

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The ranking Democrat from Minnesota on the House Agriculture Committee said committee members were able to pass the bill earlier this month in a 36-10 vote. A separate farm bill made it through the Senate Agriculture Committee earlier this year and could be up for a vote next week. If both bills make it through their chambers, a conference committee could iron out the differences by August.

But Peterson said there are serious questions over the opposition the House legislation will face, both from Republicans who want more spending cuts and Democrats who don't support the bill's $20.5 billion in cost savings to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over the next decade.

"We're not out of the woods yet," he said.

During a roundtable discussion he hosted with Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., Peterson said he and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., have worked together to draft legislation they both could support to get a new farm bill in place for the next five years.

The most recent farm bill, passed in 2008, expired last year. A replacement didn't earn enough support to make it through Congress. But many of the previous bill's provisions were extended through Sept. 30, 2013, as part of the so-called fiscal cliff deal that passed Jan. 1.

Peterson said they expect to face an onslaught of amendments when the bill comes up on the House floor in a few weeks -- including attempts to limit crop insurance for wealthier farmers and a likely effort to change or eliminate the sugar program and dairy program.

Peterson said he and Lucas will try to get a rule approved by the majority ahead of discussion to limit amendments and keep the House on track to vote on the bill.

"If we have an open rule, we'll never get this bill done," he said. "We'll have 500, 600 amendments probably, and it will take forever."

Peterson said there are other concerns -- including if they'll get enough support to get this legislation passed this year. He said one lawmaker recently estimated there's a maximum of 150 Republicans who will vote for it, meaning 70 or more Democrats in the House will have to vote for legislation that will change eligibility requirements for nutrition assistance.

"I'm worried about getting the vote at the end of the day," he said.

Cramer said Republican leaders seem more confident about getting the vote. Still, he said "the margin's thin," and they can't afford to lose any supporters.

Another potential roadblock, Peterson said, is a proposal to require conservation compliance as a condition of the crop insurance program -- a major issue in North Dakota, Minnesota and some other Northern Plains states with wetlands.

He said the Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has told him that such a requirement will be in the Senate bill. Even though Peterson and Lucas oppose the plan, he said it likely will come up in a House amendment, and he said he's not sure if they can keep it from ending up in the final farm bill after the two chambers pass their own legislation.

Cramer said he will work in the coming weeks to help conservatives in the House understand the alternative to passing a new farm bill -- they'll instead have to continue with more extensions, which he said will cost more than the next bill and won't include the spending cuts that this legislation has proposed.

"If conservatives think about it, and it's presented to them, they ought to see it as progress their way," Cramer said. "That's my job."

Peterson said it's hard to cut through the talking points and have a real discussion of the issues. Still, he said there are "reasonable" people in both parties that he'll work with to advance this legislation.

"I've been working on this four years, and I'll tell you, I am sick and tired of it," he said.

"I've been working on it four months and I'm sick and tired of it," Cramer joked.

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