K street agriculture lobbyists were stunned Thursday by the House defeat of a $940 billion farm bill and were scrambling to figure out their next move.
The bill was widely expected to win approval since it is rare for a bill backed by House leadership to be defeated on the floor. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) even cast a rare vote for the defeated bill.
“We were shocked. We were watching the vote on TV and in the final minutes were saying ‘what are they doing? This thing isn’t going to pass!' ” said one commodity group lobbyist.
The intense blame game that broke out immediately after the bill was rejected in a 195-234 vote will only make it harder to get a bill over the hump, supporters of the measure said.
Republicans said they were ambushed by Democrats who said they would deliver votes and then failed to do so. Democrats said Republicans should not have added key food stamp work requirement to the bill and that they have only themselves to blame since nearly a quarter of their conference voted no.
Lawmakers on the House Agriculture Committee were holding calls and frantic closed-door meetings with lobbyists to discuss their next moves, sources said.
One lobbying source said salvaging the bill may have to wait a few months.
“Bringing the bill back while the House is being hyper-partisan on this issue is probably not going to work,” he said.
The House bill was heavily backed by commodity groups, from rice and peanut producers in the South to corn, wheat and soy growers in the Midwest to the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union.
It won only 24 votes from Democrats after the party balked over the inclusion of $20.5 billion in cuts to food stamp programs.
One lobbyist noted the bill appeared to lose support after an amendment requiring food stamp recipients to be working or looking for work — sponsored by Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) — was added to the bill. The solution, the lobbyist said, is to move the bill to the left.
“The Southerland amendment was a bridge too far for the Democrats,” the lobbyist said.
This source said Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) need to agree on a number for food stamp cuts. The Senate farm bill, approved in a bipartisan vote, includes $4 billion in cuts to food stamps.
Another lobbyist wasn’t so sure that would work.
“I don’t know how you solve this. If you reduce the food stamp cuts to $16 billion how many Democrats do you gain, how many people do you lose?” he said.
The gloom in the official statements from farm organizations was pervasive.
"Rather than pass a bill that reduces the deficit by $40 billion while meeting the commitments of a farm bill, the country was treated to more Washington dysfunction,” USA Rice Producers' Group chairwoman Linda Raun said. “Patience in farm country is wearing thin.”
The angst among farm lobbyists contrasts to the glee expressed by opponents on the left and the right who opposed the bill.
Citizens Against Government Waste sent out a press release exclaiming “holy manure!”
“In a city known for catering to the whims of well-heeled special interest groups, the farm bill consistently manages to stand out for its parochialism, log-rolling, and corporate welfare,” it said. “That alliance broke down this afternoon, resulting in an extremely rare Farm Bill failure, one that represents a major victory for taxpayers and consumers.”
Heritage Action and Club for Growth, which both urged no votes, said they want food stamp funding severed from farm subsidies, a solution that sends shivers down the spine of farm lobbyists who have seen farm bills pass with the support of urban lawmakers backing the food stamp program.
“Now that the House has defeated the farm bill, we should finally discuss real reform,” said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola. “We need to put farm subsidies on a path to elimination and we need to devolve food stamps to the state level where they belong.”
A top farm lobbyist said cutting the bill in two would not work and would result in two failed bills as the coalition of urban liberals and rural moderates that usually backs farm bills falls apart.
Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group, which opposed the bill, said he wasn’t shocked it was defeated.
“I don’t want to sound clairvoyant but if you asked me two weeks ago if this would fail I would have said yes,” Faber said. “I don’t buy that the Southerland amendment killed the bill. I don’t think they ever had more than 24 Democrats willing to needlessly cut 2 million people from food stamps to fund subsidies for rich farmers.”