Looks like the cows won't be coming home until January, at the earliest.
Top negotiators now acknowledge that a new Farm Bill won't be ready to pass before the House plans to adjourn on Friday, but say that they should be able to unveil their measure in early January and avoid a spike in the nation's milk prices.
Current agricultural policy is set to expire on Jan. 1, when several agricultural policies expire and would revert back to laws passed in the 1930s and 1940s. Some have warned that those changes could cause an almost immediate spike in the price of milk, to as much as $7 per gallon.
But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack assured lawmakers leading the Farm Bill talks Tuesday that it would take the USDA several days to implement such changes, so there's no need for Congress to formally extend current policies so long as Congress agrees to a new bill in early January.
And that now appears to be the plan.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) said Tuesday night that he would introduce a plan to extend current agricultural policy into 2014, but added that the proposal is an "option on the table" and "the responsible thing to do" in light of an impending Jan. 1 deadline.
Lucas formally introduced a possible extension at the behest of House Republican leaders, according to aides familiar with the talks. But there's no decision yet from those leaders, even though House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) signaled last week that it might make sense to pass a short-term extension to stabilize milk prices.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and other top Democrats have said repeatedly that they would refuse to pass another extension and would prefer to see a deal.
Vilsack said in a statement late Tuesday that a formal extension "is not necessary and sends the wrong signal to rural America that has been patiently waiting for the certainty of a five-year Farm Bill."
Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), the ranking member on the Agriculture Committee, agreed, saying that Congress shouldn't pass an extension so long as leaders agree to take up the omnibus measure as soon as lawmakers return to Washington in early January.
Talk of passing a formal extension "is all politics," Peterson told reporters. Another factor, he said, would be whether an assessment of a new agreement underway at the Congressional Budget Office come back as expected.
In an ironic twist, Peterson said that part of the reason negotiators couldn't complete their work on the Farm Bill is because one of the CBO analysts responsible for reviewing the bill attended a wedding in New Jersey over the weekend and then was stranded there because of the snowstorm.