* Vilsack urges congressional action on bill
* Warns U.S. could face Brazil retaliation over cotton
* Says agriculture must be part of any US-EU free trade pact
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, Dec 19 Agriculture Secretary Tom
Vilsack Wednesday said there was a serious risk the deeply
divided U.S. Congress will not complete work on a new five-year
farm bill by year-end.
"There is a very serious risk that we might not get a farm
bill done this year," Vilsack said in a speech to the U.S.
Chamber of Commerce.
House Republicans and Senate Democrats remain deadlocked
about how to best achieve major savings in farm programs, with
debate centered on the level of crop subsidies and cuts to the
food stamp program for the poor.
"We're going to encourage Congress to get this done,"
Vilsack told reporters after his speech.
He said the reservations of the presiding officer of the
U.S. House of Representatives, House Speaker John Boehner, had
become a stumbling block. Boehner has expressed concerns about
lumping a "1,000-page" farm bill into any package crafted to
avoid the "fiscal cliff" -- the tax increases and spending cuts
that could kick in on Jan. 1.
"We need to tell the speaker it's not a thousand-page bill.
It's a bill that can be easily linked to, and provide savings
for, any fiscal cliff resolution," Vilsack said.
"We would encourage the speaker to rethink the notion it
can't be done. It can be done," he added.
Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture
Committee, said on the Senate floor on Wednesday that she was
"appalled" at the lack of action on the Farm Bill in the House
of Representatives. The Senate passed its version of the bill
"We're not giving up. We're coming back next week and we're
going to be here and we are ready to work ... to be able to do
what we need to do," Stabenow said.
In his speech, Vilsack also told the U.S. business group
that Congress needs to reform the subsidy program for cotton as
part of the farm bill or face trade retaliation from Brazil
against some $800 million of U.S. exports.
"(I'm) deeply concerned that further delay in addressing this
issue could result in retaliation, not just in agriculture, but
in other areas," Vilsack said, noting that Brazil has threatened
to target U.S. intellectual property rights in the spat.
Brazil successfully challenged the U.S. cotton program at
the World Trade Organization several years ago and has withheld
retaliation after negotiating a temporary agreement with
Vilsack said time was running out for the United States to
come up with a permanent fix.
"Frankly, the time to act is now," he said.
On another trade issue, Vilsack said the European Union's
non-tariff barriers to U.S. agricultural exports must be
addressed in any free trade agreement negotiated between the
transatlantic trading partners.
The United States has long been frustrated by what it
regards as the EU's "non-scientific" approach to food safety,
which has led to restrictions on imports of U.S. beef, pork,
poultry and other products.
The two sides are discussing a potential free trade
agreement, and farm groups are adamant that their concerns be
addressed in the talks, a position that Vilsack echoed in his
"When you talk about the EU and agriculture, you have to
talk about those non-tariff trade barriers, and they have to be
addressed in any discussion of any potential free trade
agreements," he said.