SOUTH ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A key congressional voice on agriculture, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, said Tuesday he's optimistic lawmakers can pass a new farm bill next week after a delay caused by the break for the funeral of former President George H.W. Bush.
Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, who's expected to become chairman next year, was heavily involved in negotiations that produced an agreement in principle last week among the top committee leaders in the House and Senate. He said at a news conference the final bill will get filed Monday, he expects the House will take it up next Wednesday or Thursday, and the Senate could then take it up the next day.
"With any luck it'll be out, it'll be passed by the end of next week. But knowing how things go around here, it may drag into the week after," Peterson said. "But I think we are going to get this thing done before the end of the year."
The farm bill governs farm subsidy and other agricultural programs, but by far the largest chunk of its more than $400 million in spending for the next five years goes to food stamps for the poor. As part of the final deal, House Republicans dropped their push for stricter work requirements for the program, which for months was the biggest sticking point due to opposition from House Democrats and many Senate Republicans.
Peterson said the bill isn't everything he wanted. He said couldn't win support for putting additional money into the bill above the levels set in the 2014 farm bill, so it wasn't possible to raise target prices for farmers who've been slammed by low commodity prices that have been depressed even further by the U.S.-China trade war.
The bill, therefore, largely maintains the status quo, he said. The biggest winners will be milk producers, he said, because the legislation fixes a dairy safety net program created under the 2014 farm bill that didn't work. Participating farmers with about 240 cows or less can now expect to at least break even, he said.
"It isn't the best possible bill, but it's the best bill possible," he said.
Peterson said he doesn't want to drag the process out until next year, even though he could have a greater influence in shaping the package as the House agriculture chairman. If it does get delayed into next year, he said he would still plan to quickly pass the existing agreement and send it to the Senate. Given there will be few rural Democrats in the next Congress, he said the current deal is as good as farmers are going to get.
"The clock's ticking," agreed Thom Peterson, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Farmers Union, saying newspapers have been full of stories lately about farmers facing bankruptcy.
Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap said he's excited the bill is close to passing because farmers will know for certain what help they can expect from the government as they calculate their cash flows and work with their bankers over the winter.
But the congressman also said he doesn't think the bill does enough to protect farmers from the trade war and overproduction that keeps crop prices low. He said he's warned Rep. Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders the situation is going to be bad enough Congress will have to look at providing additional aid.
"When that will happen, whether it'll be next year or the year after, I don't know," he said. "How much it'll be, I don't know."