WASHINGTON (AP) — Securing passage of a new, five-year farm bill tops the to-do list for North Dakota's congressional delegation as it heads into 2014.
The House and Senate have passed different versions of the five-year, roughly $500 billion bill — but with big differences on crop subsidies and how much to cut food stamp programs. Negotiators from both chambers hope to have an agreement by early in the year, but North Dakota's U.S. senators say they can't count on anything until the bill becomes law.
North Dakota lawmakers are also watching energy legislation and new water projects bill in Congress. But making sure a farm bill gets enacted is the top priority.
"This is the big one," Republican Sen. John Hoeven said. "Right out of the block. I think we've got this sucker teed up, but we gotta get it done."
Congress is trying to lock in its first farm bill since a deal negotiated in 2008. That deal expired in 2012, though it was eventually extended until September 2013.
Hoeven, who is on the committee negotiating an agreement, said he believes a deal is close. After the bill passes, he added, the next step would be to make sure the law worked well for North Dakota. The deal would have broad effects in the state, dealing with everything from crop insurance and emergency protections for livestock producers to subsidies that keep milk costs down.
The state's lawmakers are also focused on water-projects legislation that, while a less contentious House-Senate negotiation, is important to the state. For the first time, the proposal contains congressional authorization for a Red River diversion.
Supporters have sought the diversion to try to relieve flooding in the Fargo and Moorhead, Minn., area, a region that has endured flood threats in four of the last five years. The water bill would authorize about $800 million in federal funding for the diversion — though Congress would have to pass separate legislation to pay for it.
"I think that will be very important for Fargo," Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said.
Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer ended the year with a victory with legislation he introduced with Hoeven that focuses on streamlining the decision making process for federal oil and natural gas permits. The legislation cleared the Senate and House, and will now go to President Barack Obama.
"It takes 10 to 20 days to receive a drilling permit from the state of North Dakota, but a permit from the U.S. government can take over 300 days," Cramer said. "I don't advocate bringing the federal land waiting period down to 10 or 20, but I do think we can do better."
Other issues Congress may address in 2014 that would have an impact on North Dakota include legislation to address flood insurance prices, which skyrocketed on Oct. 1, and potential energy bills. Heitkamp said she will also seek a vote for a bill she introduced that would create a commission to help Native American children.