By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - House Speaker John Boehner, in his gloomiest assessment yet, lamented the lack of "real progress" toward a compromise $500 billion farm bill and said on Thursday the House would try to head off a potential doubling of milk prices in January.
Congress is more than a year behind schedule in overhauling U.S. farm law, hobbled by a disagreement over cuts in food stamps for the poor. House Republicans have proposed tighter rules that would disqualify 8 percent of recipients - too steep a cut for Democrats to accept.
Some level of food stamp cuts seem certain, however. Senate negotiators have offered $4.5 billion in savings, by closing a loophole on utility costs, and say they are open to additional savings if they do not push vulnerable families out of the program.
"I have not seen any real progress on the farm bill," Boehner said on Capitol Hill. "So if we have to pass a one-month extension of the (current) farm bill, I think we will be prepared to do that."
Farm-state lawmakers were optimistic about wrapping up the bill in short order, but not before the new year. A senior member of the House Agriculture Committee, Mike Conaway of Texas, said Republicans were "flexible" in negotiations with the Senate while insisting on stricter food stamp rules.
Without a new law in place by January 1, the farm program would revert to an underlying 1949 law with sky-high subsidy rates that would double the price of milk in grocery stores. The House plans to adjourn for the year on December 13.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, creating an escape valve, said earlier this week he would not invoke the 1949 law unless Congress gave up on a new bill entirely.
The House might vote next week to extend the now-expired 2008 farm law into January, "just enough for us to get our work done," said a House staff worker.
Farm subsidies, usually the flash point for farm bill arguments, have been overshadowed this time by the fight over food stamps. A near-record 47.7 million people, or roughly one in seven Americans, received federal help to buy groceries at latest count.
Benefits fell by $10 a person on November 1 with the expiration of a part of the 2009 economic stimulus package. Senate Agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow has cited those reductions when resisting further cuts.
"I will agree with the fact we do not have the stomach for any more cuts," said Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, speaking for House Democrats.
Conaway told the Farm Journal Forum, a farm policy meeting, that the final version of the farm bill will need work requirements for food stamp recipients: "something that says to continue to get food stamps you have to get back into the game" by working or looking for a job.
Similar provisions already exist for able-bodied adults without dependents, who are limited to three months of benefits in a three-year period. Conservatives would toughen them by forbidding waivers during periods of high unemployment.
"I am way unsympathetic," Conaway said, to arguments that jobs are not available. He suggested people should move, as his father once did, to find work in the oilfields. "There are 'now hiring' signs all over" the Oil Patch, he said.
Conaway is one of the 41 House and Senate conferees named to write the final version of the farm bill. At the moment, however, the bill is being drafted in private by the "big four" leaders of the Senate and House Agriculture committees.
They reported "great progress" on Wednesday after meeting for an hour, at which time they requested that cost estimates be drawn up for some crop subsidy provisions. A farm lobbyist said there were no signs of major disputes in that area.
(Reporting by Charles Abbott and Tom Ferraro; Editing by Ros Krasny,; Maureen Bavdek and Bob Burgdorfer)