WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Seeing Congress heading toward a government shutdown led by House members, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said Tuesday that her chamber will take a lead in passing the farm bill ahead of the House.
"I worry when I look at the next two weeks that there is going to be a government shutdown -- self-inflicted," Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, said at an event hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Asked about when she expects a farm bill would pass, Stabenow said, "I am aiming towards December."
Noting that farm-bill writers are facing "a complicated set of issues" -- led by the lack of needed funds -- Stabenow indicated she didn't have confidence the House could pass a farm bill.
"Despite the House Committee's best efforts, I think it's going to be very difficult," Stabenow said. "Watching it from the outside, it makes me nervous."
HOUSE AG CHAIR POINTS TO DEC. 31 DEADLINE
At a separate event early Tuesday, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn "GT" Thompson, R-Pa., said prospects are still good for passing a bipartisan farm bill and that he has never seen such strong support from leadership -- despite the conflicts on federal spending.
Thompson said his committee is still waiting for more scores of farm bill programs from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), but the CBO has been doing a good job analyzing the proposals the committee has made.
At an Axios live event, Thompson also noted that while the farm bill expires Sept. 30, "the functional deadline" for most of the farm bill is Dec. 31, and for crops, the dates next year are tied to the growing season.
"We want to avoid any significant disruption in a program that impacts the American farmer," Thompson explained. "There are a few things that come to a screeching halt on Oct. 1," he added without going into details.
He urged support for the bill, telling a mostly young audience the bill is far different from those passed in the 1980s that he described as "taking a grain shovel" and pouring out money, hoping it would solve problems.
The next farm bill, Thompson said, "is based on public-private partnerships and is vital to national security. That bill should not only serve (the farmers) through 2028 but be a platform for the future."
The senator pointed to the annual USDA funding bill that came out of the House committee with funding dollars at 2006 levels. The bill stalled before it could reach a floor vote at the end of July. Republicans have argued that funding is roughly the same as 2023 levels after all the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) money and some other funds were clawed back in the bill.
"So that's the backdrop we are dealing with here," Stabenow said. "The only way, ultimately, we are going to get this done is if a bipartisan bill gets done and working with our House colleagues on that."
As of now, cobbling together the baseline dollars to increase any major program has been difficult. Stabenow said the funding isn't there to deal with all the needs, reiterating a comment she has repeated lately about "looking under every rock" for funding.
Stabenow also pointed to a letter she and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., sent to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to boost funding for trade promotion using leftover funds from the Commodity Credit Corp. "And we can do that without taking away from the baseline," she said.
Stabenow noted the CBO has forecast that the number of people who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is projected to drop from 41.5 million at the height of the pandemic to 35 million people. "It's cyclical. It depends on who needs help and what's going on."
Still, the senator was asked by an audience member about calls from Puerto Rico to move the island residents from receiving food aid from a block grant to adding lower-income island residents to SNAP. Stabenow did not seem hopeful.
"There's not the resources at the current time," she said, pointing to pushback from the GOP over expanding SNAP. "It will be difficult to try to do this."
While fertilizer costs have come down from their peak, Stabenow pointed out that other costs for farmers right now remain high. Farmers that grow some major commodities also continue to see stronger prices even as USDA forecasts farm income dropping from 2022's record levels.
"Prices are doing well now, but we know how that goes," she said. "It's up and down, up and down."
The senator pointed out that farm groups have repeatedly called for more crop insurance program options and ways to lower the costs of crop insurance.
"We're in a situation where we need to make crop insurance more affordable," she said.
The conservation programs already have new funding under the $19.5 billion provided to USDA under the Inflation Reduction Act. Stabenow wants to take those IRA funds and focus on carbon emissions and address climate change but move the dollars into the baseline for the USDA conservation programs going forward.
"That would be ideal," she said.
Stabenow said she will not put the money into the farm bill without those dollars focusing on climate issues. "That would be moving us backward," she said.
She also is not willing to send any of those dollars to help with other areas of the farm bill such as boosting reference prices in commodity programs. Stabenow maintains more farmers are supported nationally by keeping those funds tied to conservation and climate-smart efforts. She noted farmers are "clamoring" for those conservation funds.
"Everybody wants conservation, and it is one of the top risk-management tools, right after crop insurance," she said.
She also wants to reduce the complexity of program applications and streamline them, especially for beginning and small farmers.
Reflecting on the lack of new money for the farm bill, Stabenow was asked about more funding for research programs. Research backers such as land-grant universities have called for boosting baseline dollars for research from roughly $1 billion to $5 billion a year. While saying she thinks U.S. agriculture needs a "moonshot" in research, the senator indicated adding more funding for research programs would be a heavy lift.
"I worry we don't have those resources to do that," Stabenow said, adding she has talked to senators from other committees to look for ways to increase agricultural research funding outside the farm bill. "This is an area where we aren't where we should be, and we won't, in my judgment, have the resources to do what we really need to do."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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