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Farm bill, fiscal cliff talks continue

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This week officials say private talks between Congressional leaders and President Obama are accelerating. House Speaker John Boehner plans for top Republicans to meek with Clinton-era Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, who offered a debt-reduction plan that GOP members found agreeable last fall. The plan called for an overhaul of the tax code and significant spending cuts with big changes to Medicare. Boehner claims people in both parties agree that a bipartisan approach is necessary to handle the deficit and the debt, and to spur job creation. However Boehner still wants to avert the fiscal cliff without taxing small businesses or costing jobs.

But some in Boehner’s own party, including Senate Ag Committee member Saxby Chambliss, recently voiced support for a deal that would increase tax revenue. While the gap between the GOP and the Administration on taxes and changes to federal retirement programs remains, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said this week that President Obama believes everyone has to make tough choices in order to reach a compromise.

Meanwhile, with an unfinished farm bill, expiring tax breaks, and a lomming fiscal cliff, a fight over rules is brewing in the Senate. A key constitutional difference between the House and Senate is the Senate’s protection of minority rights to filibuster motions in order to move bills. Senator Chuck Grassley says the current battle will only result in bloodletting that will hamper key legislation, including farm and tax bills. And when it comes to those, Grassley says he knows of no back-channel talks to work out a farm bill in the event the fiscal cliff is avoided.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he won’t force a rules change until January on a simple majority vote the GOP claims needs a two-thirds vote. But a one-year farm bill extension instead of a full bill this month would push that whole debate into next year and the fallout from a rules change.

Senator and former USDA Secretary Mike Johanns says the mood in Washington D.C. is anxiety; most believe a trip over the fiscal cliff is bad economic policy, and that’s to say nothing of the farm bill.