LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged quick passage of the nation's farm bill during a visit to Arkansas on Wednesday as politicians in Washington began negotiations to craft a compromise measure.
"It is essential that this gets done and gets done now," Vilsack told a group of agriculture advocates from the farm-rich state who gathered in Little Rock. "The challenges and difficulties and issues are tough, I realize, but at the end of the day, we've gone on long enough without certainty."
The five-year, roughly $500 billion farm bill sets policy for farm subsidies, food stamps and other rural development projects.
The fight over renewing it has centered on cuts to the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program. The House and Senate have been far apart on the issue of how much money to cut from food stamps, but lawmakers are hoping to resolve that debate before election-year politics set in.
Or, as Vilsack put it: "I don't care who gets the credit for this. I just want a damn farm bill."
But the farm bill has already cropped up in Arkansas politics as U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, the lone Democrat in the state's six-member congressional delegation, fights to keep his seat in a challenge from current U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton.
Pryor has criticized Cotton, a first-time Republican lawmaker who represents south Arkansas, for opposing an initial version of the farm bill and only backing it after funding was stripped out for food stamps.
Vilsack was quick to mention Pryor in one of his talks Wednesday.
"I want to also thank my good friend Sen. Pryor for helping us arrange this opportunity to meet with you," Vilsack said. "Obviously, it's important to him, and it's important to us that we get this farm bill done, so I appreciate his leadership."
Beyond politics, Vilsack discussed how the lack of a farm bill is hurting people across the country.
Among them are ranchers in South Dakota, where an unusual early fall blizzard killed tens of thousands of cattle. Those ranchers could get a big boost if a federal livestock disaster program that expired in 2011 is revived in a new farm bill. The House and Senate versions of the new farm bill include provisions to do that and to provide retroactive payments, but the two chambers have been unable to agree on a farm bill after passing different versions several months ago.
"We've never seen anything like what's happening in the Dakotas," Vilsack said. "I mean, there are literally thousands of ... cattle that are dead. And there's no way I can provide help and assistance beyond disaster loans and things of that nature. The disaster assistance needs to be resumed."