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Boehner blasts lack of farm bill progress

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio leaving a Dec. 3 news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Barring uncharacteristically swift work by Congress, more than a million victims of the recession will lose long-term employment benefits over the holidays, the price of milk could shoot up in late winter and government payments might fall sharply for doctors who treat Medicare patients. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — House Speaker John Boehner, in his gloomiest assessment yet, lamented the lack of “real progress” toward a compromise $500 billion farm bill and said on Thursday the House would try to head off a potential doubling of milk prices in January.

Congress is more than a year behind schedule in overhauling U.S. farm law, hobbled by a disagreement over cuts in food stamps for the poor. House Republicans have proposed tighter rules that would disqualify 8 percent of recipients — too steep a cut for Democrats to accept.

Some level of food stamp cuts seem certain, however. Senate negotiators have offered $4.5 billion in savings, by closing a loophole on utility costs, and say they are open to additional savings if they do not push vulnerable families out of the program.

“I have not seen any real progress on the farm bill,” Boehner said on Capitol Hill. “So if we have to pass a one-month extension of the (current) farm bill, I think we will be prepared to do that.”

Farm-state lawmakers were optimistic about wrapping up the bill in short order, but not before the new year. A senior member of the House Agriculture Committee, Mike Conaway of Texas, said Republicans were “flexible” in negotiations with the Senate while insisting on stricter food stamp rules.

Without a new law in place by Jan. 1, the farm program would revert to an underlying 1949 law with skyhigh subsidy rates that would double the price of milk in grocery stores. The House plans to adjourn for the year on Dec. 13.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, creating an escape valve, said earlier this week he would not invoke the 1949 law unless Congress gave up on a new bill entirely.

The House might vote next week to extend the now-expired 2008 farm law into January, “just enough for us to get our work done,” said a House staff worker.

Farm subsidies, usually the flash point for farm bill arguments, have been overshadowed this time by the fight over food stamps. A near-record 47.7 million people, or roughly one in seven Americans, received federal help to buy groceries at latest count.

Benefits fell by $10 a person on Nov. 1 with the expiration of a part of the 2009 economic stimulus package. Senate Agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow has cited those reductions when resisting further cuts.

“I will agree with the fact we do not have the stomach for any more cuts,” said Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, speaking for House Democrats.