Deal to avert milk price hike may not come up for vote

Milk prices could spike to $6 to $8 a gallon in January if lawmakers fail to reach a 'fiscal cliff' deal and renew a Farm Bill that's been in place since 2008 and sets the price at which the government buys milk.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Agriculture committee leaders from both chambers and parties today reached a one-year farm bill extension deal, with the hope of keeping milk prices from skyrocketing to $8 a gallon in January. But with legislation still hanging in the balance for the so-called "fiscal cliff," Republican leadership indicated to CBS News it may not see floor time for a vote before year's end.

After months of agriculture committee leaders cautioning against a temporary farm bill, the agreement comes as a last-ditch effort to avoid what would be $6 to $8-a-gallon milk if Congress doesn't pass some type of measure to replace the farm law that expired nearly three months ago. Technically, the United States has been operating under a 1949 "permanent" law since Oct. 1, but its drastic and antiquated effects would begin to take effect in January.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., just this month conceded that a one-year extension may be the most realistic scenario for the "dairy cliff" as lawmakers hurtle toward a year's end tunnel-focused on the more highly publicized "fiscal cliff". In a statement today, Lucas acknowledged, "Clearly, it is no longer possible to enact a five-year farm bill in this Congress. Given this reality, the responsible thing to do - and the course of action I have long encouraged if a five-year bill was not possible - is to extend the 2008 legislation for one year. This provides certainty to our producers and critical disaster assistance to those affected by record drought conditions.

"The one year extension," he continued, " not perfect - no compromise ever is - but it is my sincere hope that it will pass the House and Senate and be signed by the President by January 1."

Meanwhile, until today, lawmakers in the Senate Agriculture Committee had remained steadfastly resolute that extending the 2008 law shouldn't be an option. Between having to scramble for additional funding for already-expired programs and extending payment for disaster assistance, which was significant this year following a prolonged Midwest drought, they argued, any temporary measure would cost more than a full five-year bill, without offering any spending cuts.

Senate Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., pointed out that unlike the House, the Senate had already passed its version of a farm bill, over the summer. But after hashing out the best- and worst-case scenarios for some form of farm legislation to get through by the end of the year, she conceded: "The lack of action by the House Republican leadership has put us in a situation where we risk serious damage to our economy unless we pass a temporary extension.

"If a new Farm Bill is not passed in the next few days," she continued, "Agriculture Committee leaders in both chambers and both parties have developed a responsible short-term Farm Bill extension that not only stops milk prices from spiking, but also prevents eventual damage to our entire agriculture economy. ...If a new Farm Bill doesn't pass this Congress we'll soon hold another mark-up and just keep working until one is enacted next year."

Lucas told Politico last month that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had suggested to him that a farm bill was being strongly considered as part of the deficit reductions necessary to avert the "fiscal cliff," a series of tax hikes and spending cuts that could throw the U.S. economy into recession. Still, after weeks of offering the Agriculture committees little to no guidance as to the likelihood of that outcome, Republican leadership told CBS News this afternoon that it had not approved even the short-term proposal, and will not necessarily bring it up for a vote.

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