Congress' plate full beyond 'fiscal cliff'

Nov. 13, 2012 at 4:00 AM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 13 (UPI) -- Farm subsidies, doctor payments and jobless benefits, as well as the "fiscal cliff," are on lawmakers' "to do" list when Congress returns to Washington Tuesday.

A multiyear omnibus farm bill to replace a 2008 bill that expired Sept. 30 passed the Senate over the summer, but a different version is stuck in the House after being passed by the House Agriculture Committee.

The Senate bill would save $23 billion over 10 years while the House panel bill would save $35 billion over that period.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said last month he would bring the issue to the floor before the end of the year.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., told the Oklahoma Farm Report last week he hoped Cantor is true to his word.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said a new farm bill was critical for the nation and needed to be among the House's first post-election priorities.

Some agriculture programs, including crop insurance, have continued under a separate authorization.

And funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps -- also part of the farm bill -- was included in a six-month stopgap bill Congress passed in September.

But some dairy farmers say they're already feeling a pinch, The Washington Times reported, as the Department of Agriculture's Milk Income Loss Contract program, compensating dairy producers when domestic milk prices fall below a specified level, expired Sept. 30.

Some aides say the billions of dollars in savings expected to be worked out when an ad hoc conference committee resolves disagreements between the House and Senate versions of the bill could help negotiations on the so-called fiscal cliff.

Those separate, pressing talks among lawmakers and the White House seek to avoid a looming combination of big tax increases and spending cuts in the hundreds of billions of dollars scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1.

Senior lawmakers said late last week they were moving quickly to take advantage of the accommodating post-election political atmosphere.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said in a report that if the automatic spending cuts go into force and all the George W. Bush-era tax cuts expire, the nation would slip into recession next year and the jobless rate would rise to 9.1 percent.

Separately, lawmakers are widely expected to pass a short-term extension of the so-called doc fix to keep a 1997 budget-cutting law from cutting too deeply into payments for doctors who treat Medicare patients, the Times said.

If lawmakers don't pass the temporary fix, as they routinely do, those doctors would see their payments cut about 30 percent starting in January.

The cuts would save Washington billions of dollars a year, but some doctors have threatened to stop seeing Medicare patients if their payments are cut.

On another issue, many long-term unemployed Americans could stop receiving federal unemployment benefits in January unless Congress extends the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program it passed in February.

Since lawmakers created an emergency federal unemployment program in 1958, they haven't let the program expire while unemployment rates were above 7.2 percent, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities chief economist Chad Stone told the Times.

The jobless rate is currently 7.9 percent.

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