House approves farm bill in big win for Boehner and Republican leaders

The House approved a stripped-down farm bill Thursday in a tight 216-208 vote, giving a huge boost to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other Republican leaders after the embarrassing failure of an earlier bill last month.

The bill passed despite a veto threat from President Obama, objections from most Democrats and opposition from farm groups and conservative organizations.

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Hundreds of agriculture groups who opposed separating food stamp funding from the bill urged its defeat, as did conservative groups angered the bill would make farm commodity programs permanent, making them more difficult to reform in the future.

Only 12 Republicans voted against the bill, while no Democrats supported it.

Republicans voting against the bill were Reps. Justin Amash (Mich.), Paul Cook (Calif.), Ron DeSantis (Fla.), John Duncan (Tenn.), Trent Franks (Ariz.), Phil Gingrey (Ga.), Tim Huelskamp (Kan.), Walter Jones (N.C.), Frank LoBiondo (N.J.), Tom McClintock (Calif.), Matt Salmon (Ariz.), and Mark Sanford (S.C.).

The GOP vote was a huge improvement from last month, when 62 Republicans defected, and the GOP leadership suffered a rare floor defeat. The fall of that farm bill raised questions about Boehner’s leadership and the competence of the GOP’s whipping operation.

In response to the defeat, GOP leaders bowed to conservative wishes and carved food stamp funding out of the bill. The victory on Thursday made that plan a success, even though conservative groups like Club for Growth lobbied heavily to defeat the new farm bill because it did not cut spending enough.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) cast passage as a victory for farmers and conservatives who wanted reforms to farm programs. He acknowledged it took "hard work" to win passage.

"The work will now continue, and we hope Senate Democrats will not obstruct reform because the status quo isn't working," he said. "I regret that House Democrats chose to put politics ahead of farmers in this process, but am grateful our Republican conference forged ahead and kept their focus on the American people."

Boehner cast a rare vote in favor of the legislation and said he was pleased the House "took a positive first step forward in providing some much-need reforms to our farm programs." 

The vote by Boehner was remarkable not only because Speakers rarely vote on legislation, but because Boehner has opposed farm bills in the past. 

Passage by the House sets up the possibility of a conference with the Senate, which approved a farm bill that includes food stamp funding. A big issue in the conference will likely be how much to cut food stamps. The Senate bill makes cuts, but conservatives in the House want to go further.

The decision to eliminate food stamp funding from the bill led to opposition from the American Farm Bureau Federation and other groups, which lobbied furiously against the bill in the run-up to the vote.

Farm bills have historically included both farm subsidies and food stamps, which has allowed rural conservatives and urban liberals to unify around the bills.

House Democrats warned that it's hard to see a path forward for the bill given Democratic demands that a bill include food stamps.

“I believe the strategy of splitting the farm bill is a mistake,” House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said before the vote. “It jeopardizes the chances of it ever becoming law.”

After the final tally, he said splitting the bill as a sign of dysfunction by the leadership and that there was no clear path to passing a House-Senate conferenced bill. 

 "This is no different than we have looked for the last few months. It's why everybody hates us," he said.

Opposition from Democrats created an extremely slow process for passing the bill. It took nearly four hours just to approve the rule for the bill, as Democrats called for two votes on motions to adjourn, a way of protesting the legislation.

Democrats also fought with the presiding officer over how he was charging Democrats for debate time as they inserted comments into the Congressional Record.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) on several occasions said extra time would be charged because members were embellishing statements, which prompted Democrats to call for three votes in an effort to appeal those rulings.

Earlier in the day, Boehner defended the decision to move ahead with the vote, even though he admitted it is an “unusual situation.” When asked by reporters how House passage of the controversial proposal might lead to a new farm law, Boehner was vague.

“My goal right now is to get the farm bill passed,” he said. “We'll get to those issues later.”

While the GOP strategy clearly alienated all Democrats, it only split off a few Republicans, allowing it to pass. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), who regularly bucks House leadership, said he would vote against the bill over the issue of food stamps.

“I'm a 'no' until I know that a food stamp bill is coming to the floor,” he said.

But other Republicans were pleased with the result. Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.), who pushed to remove language on food stamps, cast the bill as a step toward reform and said it would allow Congress to more effectively manage the costs of both commodity programs and food stamps.

“By splitting the bill, we can give taxpayers an honest look at how Washington spends our money,” he said. “We've made progress by eliminating direct payments, but there's more work ahead. Splitting the farm bill is the next logical step on the path to real reform, for farm policy and genuinely helping those who genuinely need help.”

Before the vote, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) predicted the bill would pass. He said the vote was possible thanks to some last-minute support from the corn and wheat lobbies, and the trust that members have in Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) to continue working on the remaining issues.

“This is a reflection of the fact these people trust Frank Lucas, and when he tells them this is all that is politically possible right now, they believe him,” Cole said.

This story was posted at 3:40 p.m. and updated at 4:22 p.m.

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