WASHINGTON — Prospects for passage of a new farm bill before the end of the year appear dim, with just a week left before Congress adjourns for the holidays, although lawmakers insisted they were close to a deal.
The current measure expires at the end of the month. Members of the House and Senate have been meeting to reconcile their different versions of a new bill, and they agree on many things, including expanding crop insurance for farmers. But they remain far apart on issues like cuts to the food stamp program. A House proposal would cut about $40 billion from the program, while a Senate version would trim roughly $4.5 billion, mainly by making administrative changes.
Despite the differences, Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan and chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Representative Frank D. Lucas, Republican of Oklahoma, who heads the House Agriculture Committee, say they have made significant gains in trying to work out a deal that would pass both houses.
“Chairman Lucas and I are working in good faith to produce a conference report that’s good for farmers, ranchers and families,” Ms. Stabenow said.
The two lawmakers differ on what to do if they cannot get a deal in place before Congress leaves. Mr. Lucas has proposed extending the current farm bill, first passed in 2008 and extended last year, through January. He said in a statement that it would be the “responsible thing to do given our tight deadline.”
The House leadership has signaled that it is open to an extension, but Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, and Ms. Stabenow said they are opposed.
Ms. Stabenow said an extension could allow direct payments, which are made to farmers and farmland owners who may or may not grow crops, to continue for another year. The much-criticized program costs about $5 billion a year, and both the House and the Senate farm bills would eliminate it.
Ms. Stabenow said she would like the House to remain in session for another week until a deal on the farm bill can be reached.
The most immediate impact of the expiration of the current farm bill would be on milk prices. Without congressional action, the government would have to follow a 1949 farm law that would force the federal government to buy milk at wildly inflated prices, which would mean higher prices for consumers. The Agriculture Department said a jump in milk prices could be avoided if a new farm bill is in place sometime in January.
Farm groups said that despite the lack of a new farm bill this year they were encouraged by the progress.
“We would have loved to have it done by the end of the year, but if they can get something done in early January, we would be appreciative,” said Dale Moore, executive director for public policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation, the country’s largest farm organization.