Congressional lawmakers headed home for Thanksgiving dinner with many of them still dwelling on a farm bill that remains unfinished because of a significant partisan divide that threatens the chances of the bill passing before Congress adjourns in December.
"Don't hold your breath," Rep. Frank Lucas said of the bill's chances of passing.
Lucas, a Republican who worked as farmer and rancher in northwest Oklahoma, chairs the House-Senate conference committee tasked with producing a compromise farm bill.
The legislation covers a wide range of issues, provides a five-year plan for the regulation of farm production and prices and stipulates spending on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food stamps.
Despite a push to separate the food stamp program from the rest of the farm bill to ease its passage, Lucas told reporters that negotiators have little appetite for breaking up the bill.
"If you don't have an understanding on the comprehensive, broad, across-the-board issues, then you don't have a bill," Lucas said.
A conference call between top negotiators on Monday failed to produce a deal.
"We are knocking off all of the little stuff we can negotiate, but at some point in time some of us are going to have to get in a room and hash out the bigger stuff," said Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, a farm bill negotiator.
Cuts in food stamp spending is one of the major conflicts holding up the farm bill. Republicans are looking for deep cuts in the program, which Democrats are resisting.
The version of the farm bill passed by the Republican-run House would cut food stamps by $39 billion over the next decade, a 5 percent savings lawmakers said is needed to curb the program's explosive growth. The Democratic Senate proposed a reduction just one-tenth that size, $4 billion.
The White House this week weighed in on the debate with a report that underscored the positive aspects of the 40-year-old SNAP program, most of which goes to people living below the poverty level.
"The program has become one of the main anchors of the social safety net," the report states.
Lawmakers are also at odds over the dairy program, another major component of the legislation. The Senate version includes a market stabilization provision that would reduce milk production when demand drops. Supporters of the change say it will make the program cost effective, but Republican opponents said the change could cause a spike in milk prices.
"Dairy is just an example of strong wills, differences of opinion," Lucas said on the Radio Oklahoma Network.
Negotiators are also struggling to find middle ground on a plan to develop a commodity safety net program for farmers. There is strong disagreement over which food growers should be allowed to participate.
Congress is scheduled to return from its Thanksgiving recess on Dec. 2, leaving lawmakers just 11 days to work out a compromise and push the bill through both the House and Senate before Congress adjourns for the year.
Lucas said congressional staff will be working on a deal over the Thanksgiving recess and he will continue to talk by phone to the House and Senate negotiators. Lawmakers have not passed a new farm bill since 2008. All of the farm programs have been operating under that same legislation since then. None of the negotiators is interested in another extension, Lucas said.
"I'm a wheat farmer by trade," Lucas said. "Therefore I'm an eternal optimist."