'Milk cliff' worries prompt pivot to one-year farm bill extension

Congress is pivoting to a one-year extension of the existing farm bill instead of trying to push through a new five-year bill. 

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who previously had opposed a one-year extension, told reporters Friday that she was shifting gears and preparing a one-year bill. 

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"That's the only way you can do it, extend all of them," she said.

Stabenow's shift comes amid growing worries about a "milk cliff."

The price of milk is set to rise dramatically at the beginning of the year if the current farm bill expires. The end of the current law would force the government to revert to a 1949 law for setting milk prices, which some analysts say could lead to a doubling of the milk price. 

Stabenow had steadfastly held out for passage of a five-year farm bill. The Senate passed a bill with $23 billion in savings in the spring and the House Agriculture Committee passed one with $35 billion in deficit reduction over 10 years. Both had cuts to farm subsidies and food stamp spending. 

House Republican leaders tried to move a one-year extension of the 2008 bill in July but pulled back at the last minute. House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) spearheaded rural Democratic opposition to the GOP bill and was instrumental in sinking its chances. 

Peterson is participating in talks with Stabenow, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). A Democratic aide said negotiations over the exact shape of the extension are not final yet.

"We will wait until the very last opportunity to pass a full farm bill," Stabenow said Friday, even as she acknowledged work on a one-year extension had begun. 

"We certainty want to make sure we have a responsible short-term extension if it is not possible to get the farm bill done," she said.

Rural lawmakers have hoped that the farm bill could ride on a "fiscal cliff" agreement before Jan. 1. Once 2013 arrives, work on the farm bill must start from scratch. Some lawmakers are worried that new crop insurance programs created in the House and Senate versions of the 2012 farm bill could be scrapped next year under increasing budget pressure. 

The 2008 farm bill by contrast contained direct payments, a farm subsidy that is paid based on historic production and is received by farmers who no longer farm. That system is viewed as deeply unpopular and could be vulnerable to cuts that would be worse that what was included in the bills approved this year in the House and Senate.

Stabenow said that a simple extension would have to be passed under expedited procedures. She said any member filibustering the extension would face massive ire. 

"Whoever objects to it would have to deal with doubling the price of milk," she said.