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Ag committee leaders reach agreement on farm bill

WASHINGTON — House and Senate ag committee leaders on Thursday say they have “reached an agreement in principle” on a farm bill.

“We’re pleased to announce that we’ve reached an agreement in principle on the 2018 Farm Bill. We are working to finalize legal and report language as well as (Congressional Budget Office) scores, but we still have more work to do. We are committed to delivering a new farm bill to America as quickly as possible,” said a Nov. 29 joint statement from House and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairmen Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, and Sen. Pat Roberts, R- Kan., and ranking members Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said Nov. 29 that she’s hesitant to say the process is done until final language and CBO scoring is complete, but she is confident a bipartisan bill will be released soon.

“At this point, it’s looking very, very good for getting a bill,” said Heitkamp, who has served on the ag committee and the farm bill conference committee.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said earlier this week that getting a farm bill done by Nov. 30 was important for timing reasons. He said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has committed to getting the bill floor time.

Hoeven, who is a member of the farm bill conference committee as well as the chairman of the Ag Appropriations Committee, said the farm bill “is our first, second and third priority.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation’s largest farm group, cheered Thursday's announcement.

“The farm bill and ag policy broadly remain bipartisan matters and we encourage both houses of Congress to approve this bill once it is finalized by House and Senate Ag Leaders. We are thankful the Agriculture committees have stayed true to their mission to serve the American farmer and rancher and our nation's consumers, and we look forward to working with the next Congress on all the issues facing agriculture,” said AFBF president Zippy Duvall in a statement.

Heitkamp and Hoeven said the bill leans far closer to the Senate version of the bill.

“Fundamentally, it is the Senate bill with some tweaks,” Heitkamp said.

“But it’s got elements of the House bill that are important,” Hoeven said.

Heitkamp said “draconian changes to the nutrition program” included in the House bill have been scrapped in favor of the Senate nutrition language. That will be important to getting passage in the Senate, she said.

“This is a farm bill that will get bipartisan support in the House and probably get the same level of support in the Senate,” she said, noting that the bill is based on the 2014 Farm Bill.

Heitkamp said important changes were made to the Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage programs, and the bill will make permanent beginning farmer and rancher programs. The bill also will make it possible to use federal marketing assistance for trade with Cuba, which she said was important due to the need for new markets for North Dakota products. The sugar program and crop insurance program remain in the bill, too.

“A number of the conservation issues were resolved in a way that I think will satisfy a lot of North Dakota folks,” Heitkamp said.

Hoeven said issues to resolve as of Nov. 27 included disagreements in regard to payment provisions and conservation programs. He said the issue of forest management — made more conspicuous by the deadly California wildfires — remained on the table at that time. The House bill had provisions which would give the Interior Department and the Forest Service authority to clear dead trees and brush from forests, while the Senate bill did not.

“I think we’ve got a good bill. I think this is a good bill for our farmers in North Dakota and our farmers nationally. We want this bill. We want to get it done,” Hoeven said.

Heitkamp, who will leave office at year’s end after her defeat in the November election, said finishing the farm bill has been a priority for her. The urgency to get the bill completed, she said, stemmed from the upcoming changes in the House to Democrat control and the ongoing trade problems.

“I’ve said all along that the single most important job of a North Dakota senator is to get a farm bill,” she said. “In a time of uncertainty in our markets, we need to get certainty in our farm bill.”

While the farm bill is the most important thing at play in Washington, Hoeven said he’s talked to Vice President Mike Pence on issues like trade and disaster assistance in recent days, too.

“It’s not just the farm bill, but that is the absolute priority,” he said.

Heitkamp agreed. She said she remains “deeply concerned” about the loss of markets. The “new NAFTA,” as she called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, has not yet been approved, and more potential trade negotiations await completion.

“None of this has been finalized,” she said.

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