Farm Bill agreement expected this week, with final passage within days

A final version of the Farm Bill, legislation that accounts for billions of dollars in federal spending and has lingered on the congressional to-do list for two years, is expected to be unveiled as early as Monday, with final passage likely in the coming days, according to several aides familiar with the talks.

Cattle on a dairy farm on the eastern shore of Maryland. (Andrea Sachs/The Washington Post)

Cattle on a dairy farm on the eastern shore of Maryland. (Andrea Sachs/The Washington Post)

If an agreement is finalized Monday, senior House aides said that Republican leaders will bring the measure up for a vote in the House, where they believe it will pass with sufficient bipartisan support. The bill would then move to the Senate and likely be approved before a mid-February recess.

"We remain optimistic that we can reach agreement in time to be on the floor next week," House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) said in a message to his colleagues sent over the weekend. The message asked members working on the legislation to return to Washington in time for a possible meeting Monday morning. Aides later said that signatures of support for the compromise were being collected in case not enough lawmakers returned in time.

The legislation couples together billions of dollars in funding for food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, with myriad concerns regarding all aspects of farming, from price support programs, to important details of food labeling and the treatment of livestock. Supporters often note that the bill affects roughly 16 million jobs in the agricultural sector, making it one of the largest jobs bills Congress has debated in recent years.

Final passage of the bill would cap years of sensitive talks led by Senate Democrats and House Republicans that continued in a relatively cooperative fashion despite the partisan rancor that has upset debate on other subjects. But negotiations teetered on the brink of collapse last summer when the Republican-led House split apart the omnibus bill and held separate votes to dramatically cut funding for the federal food stamp program and another to deal with most farming-related policy.

More recently, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) threatened not to allow votes on the bill if it included a government dairy price support program he considered "Soviet-style" but has been backed by members of both parties.

With thousands of pages of policy to write, staffers on both sides of the Capitol Hill spent the weekend settling several remaining areas of concern.

Aides said that talks were still focused on settling concerns with whether to end price controls on the dairy industry. Boehner and other Republicans argue that the program has cost taxpayers billions of dollars and needlessly drives up the cost of milk, cheese and yogurt. But lawmakers of both parties from dairy states across the country argue that some kind of government support system is needed to bolster dairy farmers during downturns.

Talks were also focused on settling concerns over how to label livestock that is born in places like Canada or Mexico but raised and slaughtered in the United States. New federal "country of origin labeling" rules that took affect last year require labels explaining where a meat product was born, raised and slaughtered. The rules have been challenged in federal court by the livestock industry amid concerns that they could upset trade relations with Canada and Mexico.

Negotiators were also still working on whether to put limits on the Agriculture Department's "actively engaged" farmer program. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and other fiscal conservatives have argued that loopholes in the program have wasted taxpayer money by paying people who don't actually live on or work on a farm. But many southern lawmakers believe the  is critical to farms in their states.

The sensitive subject of food stamp money was settled weeks ago. Plans call for eliminating about $9 billion in SNAP funding over the next decade by tweaking the rules of a federal heating assistance program that some states use to determine a person's eligibility for food aid, according to aides familiar with the negotiations. The cuts are a compromise between a proposed $4 billion cut in food stamp money approved by the Senate in June and nearly $40 billion in cuts approved by the House as Republicans sought to overhaul eligibility requirements for SNAP.

Although many liberals and conservatives are expected to reject the food stamp compromise as too severe or insufficient, House and Senate lawmakers and aides still expect the overall bill to easily pass -- if only so that Congress can move on to other issues.

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