By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture committees remain silent on the status of farm bill conference negotiations, but there have been plenty of comments in the last few days about what is in the legislation, what isn't in it and what should be in it.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Tuesday held a conference call on forestry management and said the farm bill needed to include language to help thin forests to deal with devastating wildfires in the west.
Perdue and Zinke told reporters that they want the farm bill to give them management reforms, including for the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department agencies to have authority to work with local governments and tribes as well as states on fire suppression. Perdue said they also want "categorical exclusions" so that the government can authorize the thinning of trees and the removal of dead and dying trees after a fire.
"We are not talking about clear-cutting," Perdue said.
Noting that the world has been focused on the California fires, Perdue said, "These are disasters we can do something about. We need the authority do that."
Perdue noted that the change in law from an earlier omnibus appropriations bill to treat forest fires as disasters under federal regulations doesn't go into effect until fiscal year 2020 and that, until then, the Forest Service has to take money from the forest suppression account to fight fires when the agency runs out of firefighting funds.
Zinke said that he and Perdue are "hand in hand" on the forest fire issues.
President Donald Trump also issued a statement Tuesday urging Congress to act on forest management.
House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said that if Congress does not pass the bill during the lame-duck session, he would want to bring it up again in January, when he will chair the House Agriculture Committee, the Red River Farm Network reported Monday.
Peterson also said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, dropped a controversial food stamp provision last week, Red River said.
"I want the (agriculture) committee organized as soon as possible so I can take the bill that we have now, pass it in the House and send it over. Even if [Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie] Stabenow [D-Mich.] doesn't have everything that she wants, let her vote against it if that's what she wants to do," Peterson said.
Tom Sell, a partner in Combest, Sell and Associates, said that Conaway is starting to realize achieving more on work requirements in the nutrition title of the farm bill may be hopeless, Red River said.
"There's been a lot of good work behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for areas of compromise in the titles of the bill," said Sell. "All of the elements are there to get it done."
Peterson, who spoke to the Minnesota Farm Bureau and Minnesota Farmers Union conventions over the weekend, said that the bill is "a moving target; I think we have nutrition worked out, but then it was CSP [Conservation Security Program], then it was payment limits and then it was forestry," according to the Red River report.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters on Tuesday that he believes the bill might be added to the fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill that Congress is supposed to pass by Dec. 7. That way, the House Republican leadership can avoid challenging the Hastert Rule under which Republican leaders rarely bring up a bill that does not have majority Republican support, Grassley added.
Grassley said he learned that piece of information in a call with a conferee to inquire about how much time the farm bill may take on the Senate floor. Grassley said he made the inquiry because he is trying to figure out the strategy for the criminal justice reform bill that he and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., are trying to pass. Grassley declined to name the conferee and said he had not discussed the content of the bill as part of that call.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a speech to the North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts on Tuesday that he is working to ensure that the final version of the farm bill "provides relief from Natural Resources Conservation Service regulations," maintains both the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program, expands the Conservation Reserve Program and maintains "strong land-grant formula research funding."
Russell Group President Randy Russell said it's understandable to have skepticism about lawmakers reaching an agreement by the end of the lame-duck session, Red River reported.
"Consider what's lost if a bill isn't completed," Russell told the Red River Network. "I don't think anyone wants to start this process all over again and face new risks or threats. This is the time, toward the end of the session, when deals are made. I think that's what we're seeing for the farm bill."
On Friday, Taxpayers for Common Sense and 13 other groups urged members of Congress to oppose any provisions "that expand the already egregious subsidies in the farm bill." (https://www.taxpayer.net/…)
A coalition of conservation groups, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, urged Congress to retain provisions that assemble data related to conservation programs. https://goo.gl/…
Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at email@example.com
Follow him on Twitter @hagstromreport
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