Republicans settled for the one-year disaster relief bill after they were unable to bring up a multi-year farm bill before the August break, in part due to some GOP opposition to the cost of a longer-term bill. But Republicans also had trouble calling up the drought aid bill — they originally hoped to consider it under a suspension of the rules, but when it became clear that a two-thirds majority was not possible, they called it up under regular order.
"I've made pretty clear that the House is pretty well divided," he said. "You've got the left concerned about reductions in the food stamp program. You've got the right who don't think the cuts go far enough in the food stamp program to bring it into ... compliance with what the law has been. And frankly, I haven't seen 218 votes in the middle to pass the farm bill."
Despite this problem, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) defended the drought bill as one that is needed because disaster aid was under-funded in the last farm bill, and because of the severe drought over the last several weeks.
"I have heard people call this extending disaster assistance for a year," he said. "No. What we're doing is fixing a problem. We're back-filling a hole and we're fixing inefficiency."
He also defended the more than $600 million in cuts to conservation programs that will fund the drought aid, and also lead to more than $250 million in deficit reduction. Lucas said a record level of conservation funding was provided in the last farm bill, and that these multibillion-dollar programs can survive a small cut.
"To hear them say we're destroying conservation programs could not be further from the truth," Lucas said.
But as expected, Democrats criticized the process and were left openly wondering why Republicans could not get to a larger farm bill by the break.
"Members will now have explain to their constituents why the House did not even try to consider a new five-year farm bill," Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said. "Frankly, we're in this position because the House leadership has refused to bring a five-year farm bill to the floor."
Peterson said he and Lucas had a farm bill prepared but were told to wait, and added that he understands that "this is an election year, and the majority wanted to promote their message."
Peterson also criticized the bill for cutting conservation programs, and for not helping all farmers.
"This is not a comprehensive disaster package," he said. "Berry and specialty crop producers are going to be left hurting, and there's no assistance for pork and poultry producers."
Democrats noted that House passage this week is more a political move than a practical one, as it will not provide the relief it promises over the August break. The Senate has indicated it will not take it up this week, and still might not take it up even in September.
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) blasted the Senate for not acting on the bill before leaving for the break. "I want a farm bill, too, but they should not be playing games with disaster aid," she said, adding that "the people deserve to know they are playing games."
— Russell Berman and Erik Wasson contributed.