Boehner wins dairy fight in farm bill

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Thursday won a battle over the shape of U.S. dairy policy as the House approved an amendment that eliminates production limits. 

The change was supported by dairy processors but opposed by milk producers. 

The amendment was approved in a 291-135 vote, with all but 35 Republicans voting for the language. Democrats were split 95-100. 

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) sided with Boehner, and one Republican voted "present."

Boehner last year criticized the U.S. dairy program as "Soviet-style," and said he would support changes to this year's farm bill to improve the program.

The underlying bill would impose production limits on dairy producers, which supporters say keeps the cost of dairy subsidies down, but was opposed by processors who said it raised prices. 

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Boehner supported passage of an amendment from Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and David Scott (D-Ga.) that would remove the production limits from the bill. Boehner, who as Speaker typically does not vote on legislation, voted for the amendment.

In a rare "dear colleague" letter sent today, Boehner said voting for the amendment would help end a "costly maze of dairy programs designed to keep prices high."

"By bringing some free market reforms to our dairy programs, this amendment will help our economy grow, protect farmers and families, and save taxpayers an additional $15 million over the changes in the underlying bill," he wrote.

Dairy processors at the International Dairy Foods Association argued the production cost consumers $3 billion a year in higher prices. 

Boehner's support for the change put him at odds with Republicans like Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.). Valadao, a dairy farmer, spoke against the amendment on the floor and said the government needs to be able to control production in order to control how much money it spends on the insurance program.

"If government's going to continue to push money in that direction, we have to make sure [dairy producers] don't continue to produce that product that consumers don't want," he said.

Valadao was joined by several Democrats, such as Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Reps. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who said production limits are needed to fend off low dairy prices, a goal supported by producers at the National Milk Producers Federation. Welch said that without limits on production, dairy farmers will react to falling prices by producing more milk, which will sink prices even further.

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, Welch acknowledged to The Hill that Boehner's support for the change would likely make it difficult for his side to prevail.

"The Speaker has some tools at his disposal for persuading folks on how to vote," Welch said.

The Senate bill includes language similar to what the House amendment replaced, setting up a fight in the conference committee on the farm bill.