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Lawmakers in Congress have short time window to pass farm bill in 2012

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The lull in Congress before the new year may be called the “lame duck” session, but Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, says legislators will have to get to work in a hurry to pass a five-year farm bill before the session ends.

Congress allowed the farm bill to expire Sept. 30 without passing the new version drafted this year to replace it. While the bill was approved by the Senate in June, House leaders blocked it before the election, although it passed the House Agriculture Committee.

Mr. Owens said Congress now will be pressured to pass the farm bill during the three weeks after Thanksgiving. If that is not done, the bill probably would be pushed back for several months, leaving north country farmers who have depended on the bill’s provisions in limbo.

“Many of us continue to bring up the bill in the lame duck session, and we were promised by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor several weeks ago it would be now,” Mr. Owens said last week. “It wasn’t on the docket this week, but I’m hopeful it will be when we come back after Thanksgiving.”

Some lawmakers have pushed for a short-term extension of the bill, but Mr. Owens has opposed that idea, saying he does not want to see the full bill scrapped.

Approving an extension “would be more complicated than one might think,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re covering all aspects of the plan, and an extension would take just as much time to get done as passing the bill.”

One concern Mr. Owens has is resistance from House Republican leaders who have prevented the bill from going to a full vote. They have done so, he contended, because they want to pass it using only votes by Republicans.

“My belief is they are still struggling to get enough votes,” he said.

Nevertheless, Mr. Owens said he is optimistic that Republicans and Democrats will be more likely to cooperate than they were before the election. Bipartisanship is also being driven by the looming so-called fiscal cliff facing the economy that may require major cuts to avoid.

“One of the messages taken from the election is that people expect to get things done in Congress,” he said, “and one of the easier things to get done is the farm bill. In terms of the spectrum of what we have to do (to make cuts), it’s one of the least contentious issues. I think the $23 million in proposed cuts will be up to $25- to $27 million range; that’s a significant cut to debt reduction.”

And if the bill isn’t passed by the end of the year, it will mean more painful cuts to federal programs for farmers. Dairy farmers in the north country already are suffering from the discontinuation of the Milk Income Loss Contract program with the expiration of the bill. The federal safety net reimbursed farmers when national milk prices dropped, said Steve Ammerman, manager of public affairs for the New York Farm Bureau. If the revamped farm bill is passed, farmers would have the option to join a new margin insurance program, which will calculate reimbursements based on the gap between feed and milk costs.

“If no action is taken, programs will face additional cuts,” he said. “But it could be part of the savings used to address the fiscal cliff if they already have $20- to $30 million in cuts for deficit reduction. We’re hopeful and optimistic something will be done.”

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