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Farm bill, water projects key for North Dakota

In this Sept. 27file photo Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., center, walks past Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., left, on her way to vote on a bill on Capitol Hill in Washington. As Heitkamp approaches the end of her first year as a senator, she has tried to keep a delicate balance, weighing the views of her generally conservative North Dakota constituents and the policy priorities of national Democrats. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON — A new farm bill and a bill authorizing billions of dollars in water projects are key for North Dakota as Congress wraps up its work for the year.

House and Senate negotiators are trying to reach a compromise on both bills, which have big implications for North Dakota. North Dakota's congressional delegation is also closely watching a defense authorization bill.

"Three things -- Farm bill, farm bill and farm bill," Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said, when asked what she would be focused on for the rest of the year.

Heitkamp said she is confident that a water projects bill and the defense reauthorization — both less contentious issues — will be passed, too.

She said she is most focused on the farm bill because "there are consequences from the first of the year," if Congress can't pass a bill. She also said she is worried about a dairy program that could expire by year's end.

Republican Sen. John Hoeven, who is on the committee negotiating a compromise between House and Senate versions of the farm bill, said that the farm bill will be his primary focus too.

Both lawmakers said they hope for agreement and passage before the end of the year. But Hoeven said he was worried that recent developments in the Senate could make it harder.

Just before leaving for a Thanksgiving recess, Democrats changed Senate procedures, allowing presidential nominations and most judicial nominations — though not Supreme Court nominations — to move forward on a simple majority vote. Hoeven said Democrats hurt the prospects of bipartisan compromise by taking the step.

"I think it will affect everything," Hoeven said of the rules change. "We need to do things in a bipartisan way. This will not help."

Farm bill negotiators in the House and Senate are at loggerheads over the level of funding for food stamps. The House version would significantly cut funding.

Among the key issues at stake for North Dakota are reauthorization of important crop insurance provisions and protections for ranchers and livestock producers. The bill would also reauthorize a dairy support program that expires at year's end and helps control milk prices.

Negotiations over the water bill are much less contentious.

There are fewer substantive differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill and negotiators are hopeful they can reach a deal and vote on it before they leave for Congress' Christmas break.

For North Dakota, passage would mean as much as $800 million for the flood-prone Red River Valley. The bill authorizes that much spending, though Congress would have to pass a separate spending bill to fund the work. The bill also makes changes to Army Corps of Engineers practices.

Hoeven said the funding is much needed for a region that has been ravaged by flooding in recent years.

"It's so important, not just for North Dakota but for the whole region and the country," he said of the water bill.