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Published February 21, 2013, 11:41 AM

Hoeven says farm bill will pass this year

FARGO — Members of North Dakota’s congressional delegation say passing a new farm bill, not simply extending the old one, is their No. 1 priority this year.

By: Forum News Service, Forum News Service

FARGO — Members of North Dakota’s congressional delegation say passing a new farm bill, not simply extending the old one, is their No. 1 priority this year.

Sen. John Hoeven said by March he hopes to be in the agricultural committee marking up the new bill, which will be “by and large” the same bill the Senate passed last summer.

“I’d like it to be the first one to the floor and get it through and have a head of steam” before sending it to the House, Republican Hoeven said.

Hoeven was joined by Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer in a roundtable discussion on the farm bill with state agricultural leaders during the state Corn Growers Association annual meeting here on Wednesday.

The farm bill sets national policy for agriculture, nutrition, conservation and forestry.

The House Agriculture Committee passed its version of a farm bill last year, but it didn’t reach the floor for a full vote.

Instead, on Jan. 1 Congress extended the 2008 farm bill for nine more months, setting a Sept. 30 deadline for a new five-year bill. The move was criticized by local agricultural leaders.

Heitkamp said extensions are “not the future of the farm bill.”

“You need certainty in the marketplace,” which can only be brought by a definitive five-year budget, she said.

“We need to get a farm bill passed,” she said. “To me, that’s the highest priority.”

The bill passed by the Senate last year ended direct payments to farmers and would have saved taxpayers billions of dollars over five years.

Instead of direct payments, which some local agricultural leaders say give farming a bad rap, “enhanced crop insurance” has to be the “heart and soul” of the new bill, Hoeven said.

The bill caught flak last year from senators who represented Southern producers of cotton, peanuts and rice, who rely heavily on direct payments, Hoeven and Heitkamp said.

“The challenge politically in the Senate, I think, is to get a farm bill that has more Southern support,” Heitkamp said, “and the challenge in the House is to get a farm bill.”

Cramer said he believed the bill will make it to the House floor this time around, but, “The floor will be a fight.”

The Senate’s version of the bill called for $23 billion in savings, while the House version called for $35 billion in deficit reduction.

Where they varied largely was in cuts to nutrition and food stamps: The Senate cut $4 billion, while the House wanted $16 billion in cuts. Hoeven said food stamps will continue to be one of the major issues for the bill in the House.

Although Cramer said automatic federal spending cuts — known as sequestration — will likely happen in March, Hoeven said that doesn’t have to sink the farm bill.

The automatic cuts would take $16 billion from the agriculture programs, and both previous versions of the bill already had more than that built in.

“There’s no reason we should be held up,” Hoeven said.

Despite public perception, less than 20 percent of the so-called “farm bill” is actually allocated to farmers, Hoeven said. About 80 percent goes toward nutrition programs.