After two years of starts and stops, lawmakers from the House and Senate will begin formal negotiations Wednesday on the farm bill.
The farm bill talks are being overshadowed by larger negotiations that aim to undo automatic cuts to the federal budget, but it is possible the two sets of talks will be linked by budget negotiators.
The House and Senate farm bills take different approaches to expanding the crop insurance program that protects farmers from catastrophic losses, but there is urgency to reconcile them. Many farm programs lapsed Sept. 30 because Congress failed to pass a temporary extension by then.
Another natural disaster like the blizzard that recently struck South Dakota could keep the pressure on Congress to pass a new farm bill quickly, said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
"If they occur at a time when Congress is dealing with something, they have a way of inspiring people to move forward to a more rapid conclusion," said Hoefner, a 30-year veteran observer of past farm bill negotiations.
But there are two big issues that could make or break the farm bill.
The food stamp program, which makes up about 70 percent of the farm bill's overall spending of roughly $100 billion a year, is particularly a stumbling block.
“You think we're going to let them write the farm bill? ...What do you think Paul Ryan would end up doing if he was writing the farm bill?”U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson
The bill pushed by House Republicans cut $4 billion a year from that total. As many as 32,000 Minnesotans would lose their food stamp assistance if that bill were enacted, according to an estimate from the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
The Senate bill makes smaller cuts to food assistance — about $500 million a year.
Still, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat who represents Minnesota's 1st District, is optimistic that differences over food stamp policy won't prevent a deal.
"I think it's bridgeable," Walz said. "I don't think it's insurmountable."
The second issue is that formal budget talks are underway with the stated goal of ending the across the board budget cuts known as sequestration. Both the House and Senate bills offer billions in budget savings over the next decade that could be used to ease the sequester, Hoefner said.
"And if the farm bill can pay for 25 or 30 percent of the $100 billion, they'll desperately need that money," he said.
Walz is one of three Minnesotans on the 41 member conference committee. He joins U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson and Tim Walz. All are Democrats.
Klobuchar said the larger budget talks should give the House and Senate conference committee an incentive to get its work done quickly,
"What we're worried about is if the Budget Committee takes it over and at midnight they're making all sorts of decisions without knowing the ramifications," she said. "So it's a really important thing that the Agriculture Committee makes some progress and it's an incentive for us to get it done."
Peterson, the dean of Minnesota's congressional delegation and the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, was even more blunt about the conference getting its work done.
Referring to last year's vice presidential candidate and a Republican budget chair U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Peterson said the budget committee would simply slash farm bill spending across the board.
"You think we're going to let them write the farm bill?" Peterson said. "What do you think Paul Ryan would end up doing if he was writing the farm bill?"
The farm bill has been used as a partisan punching bag by both parties over the past two years, but Walz said the mood on Capitol Hill has changed recently.
"After this debacle of a shutdown, now is — I think — a perfect time for this to come because I think cooler heads will prevail," Walz said.
There's another incentive for the conference committee to come up with a bill soon.
Without a new farm bill, dairy supports could expire at the end of the year, which could drive up milk prices.
But time is short for the negotiators.
The House is scheduled to be in session barely a dozen days between now and the end of the year.