Fiscal cliff is now the best shot for farm bill, agriculture lobbyists say

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) caused a stir on Thursday when he seemed to indicate that a standalone farm bill would come to the House floor after the Nov. 6 election.

But lobbyists said the remarks mean, at best, that a modified farm bill could be wrapped into a lame-duck bill dealing with expiring tax cuts and automatic spending cuts.

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“I’m committed to bring the issue to the floor and then to see a way forward so we can get the votes to pass (a bill),” Cantor said at a campaign event in Idaho.

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) seized on the remarks, saying, “I'm very pleased to hear that Majority Leader Cantor is now committed to bring the Farm Bill to the floor immediately after the election.”

Republican aides, however, quickly made clear that Cantor was not expressing any new support for moving the farm bill as reported out of the House Agriculture Committee this summer.

Washington farm lobbyists said that in the wake of Cantor’s comments, the last best hope for the 2012 farm bill to pass will be if it is riding on fiscal cliff legislation. 

“People on both sides of the aisle have made it clear to me that the only way it will be passed is as part of the fiscal cliff bill, if there is one,” one lobbyist said.

“Wrapping it in would be the best possibility, I think,” said another.

“I think the odds favor it being attached to fiscal cliff legislation, although the latter may just extend the Bush tax cuts and postpone the sequester by 3 to 6 months,” said a third expert.

The House farm bill faces criticism from the right, which wants to see deeper cuts to food stamps in the bill, and from the left, which objects to the $16 billion on cuts it already contains. 

Supporters of the farm bill say GOP leaders have never done a whip count and their own informal efforts show the votes are there, despite the objections. 

Several lobbyists said that a status-quo election — one where President Obama remains in the White House and the balance of power in Congress remains as is — also provides the best hope for the farm bill, since it removes the temptation to go back to the drawing board.

The House draft farm bill cuts the deficit by $35 billion, and the Senate-passed version cuts $23 billion. That would go a long way toward replacing the $109 billion in sequester cuts set to hit in January.

Both bills use some savings from ending direct farm payments to expand crop insurance. 

Lobbyists for commodity groups have long feared that the expanded crop insurance could be sacrificed in favor of more deficit reduction if the farm bill is wrapped into a fiscal cliff bill. 

Both President Obama and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the GOP vice presidential nominee, produced budgets that cut more from farm programs.

But this fear is being balanced by a greater nightmare. The worry is that, come January, a new Congress could decide to go back to the drawing board and spend up to two years reworking and renegotiating a farm bill.

The 2008 farm bill expired Sept. 30 and the 1949 base law is now in effect. 

This means that come the spring, farmers will start to feel the real impact of an outdated safety net.

The Cantor comments are seen as “rhetoric” meant to ease the pressure on candidates like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) who have been under attack over the lack of a farm bill.

But lobbyists said the acknowledgement of pressure is a positive sign.

“I am confident the farm bill issues will be addressed some way because: (1) it has to be lest we revert to the '49 Act, (2) they are relatively small potatoes (excuse the pun) and could actually be helpful (the $23 to $35 B savings); and (3) it needs to be to provide a measure of stability to the sector,” one lobbyist said in an email to The Hill.