By Erik Wasson
House Republican leaders on Wednesday intensified their attempt to pass a farm bill by splitting off provisions dealing with food stamps.
Lawmakers said GOP leaders believed splitting the bill was the most viable option to getting a farm bill passed and they were prepared to hold a floor vote Thursday if enough support could be found.
After a 6 pm vote series, the whip team led by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was still searching for the votes needed to pass a farm bill with food stamp funding stripped out.
“There are more votes tonight and more chances for leadership to visit with members,” House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) said after trying to avoid reporters. Votes are scheduled to last until 10 pm.
“I think that the whip’s organization is working this with great intensity. I expect when they have the appropriate or necessary number we’ll all learn together. And we’ll go to the next step,” he said.
Lucas said that he has a bill prepared to go to the Rules Committee and sources said that Rules was on standby Wednesday evening to move on it.
As a sweetener to conservatives, the bill would repeal the underlying 1949 farm law and replace it with the 2013 version. Doing this would remove the threat of the farm bill expiring every five years, a deadline that has allowed Congress to expand farm subsidies in the past.
The effort to split the bill emerged after a united farm bill failed on the House floor last month on a 195 to 234 vote when liberals balked at the $20.5 billion in food stamp cuts in the bill and conservatives voted “no” because they wanted more.
Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) pushed the idea and got the support of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Their effort ran into trouble when 532 farm groups led by the American Farm Bureau and National Farmers Union came out against it. A second blow came this week when the conservative groups Heritage Action and Club for Growth called the plan a ruse and lobbied against it.
“Talk about a whipsaw effect for a lot of us,” Stutzman said Wednesday.
“I’m a Farm Bureau board member back in Indiana. Now conservatives are against it. Maybe if both of them are against it, it is the right thing to do.”
Stutzman said that some members are being swayed by the idea the more time they have to think about it.
He said that leaders have some time since the goal is to get a bill done by the August recess.
“There are other options they could use, but this is the one they feel has the best chance,” he said.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said leaders are feeling heat from rural Republican lawmakers.
“We have to have a farm bill done. We don’t want to send farm state members back home for August without a farm bill,” he said. “If this doesn’t work, they’ll come back next week and try something else.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who has been whipping the split farm bill, said only McCarthy knows how short of 218 votes the count has fallen.
“I’m a deputy whip, but he keeps that pretty close to the fold,” he said.
He said a key problem was Democratic opposition. The united farm bill got 24 Democratic votes.
“We don’t know what the Dems are going to do at this stage. From a policy standpoint, you’d think they’d all vote for a farm bill because there is no objection since the SNAP program would be separated from it,” he said.
Conaway expressed frustration at the American Farm Bureau opposition.
“For the American Farm Bureau to weigh in without a rational is troubling and confusing a lot of our members,” he said.
He said that the combination of Club for Growth and American Farm Bureau opposition was making it tough
“It does and that’s why we’ve not announced what time the bill is coming to the floor tomorrow or the next day or the next day. We’re still working it and trying to find the 218 votes,” he said.
He said “members are scratching their heads and trying figure out what is best for our country.”
Conaway said he did not know what plan B would be for the farm bill.
Some Democrats said they would like to see the original bill come back without an amendment by Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) to require food stamp recipients find work or enroll in job training.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday he believed there were about 40 Democratic votes for the farm bill before final amendment votes.
Conaway shot that idea down.
“I don’t think our conference would stand for eliminating the work requirement for the SNAP problem,” he said.
If GOP leaders decide not to move a united bill to the political left to pick up Democrats, they could try to pass a GOP only bill cutting food stamps by up to $135 billion. It is not clear if such a bill would gain enough of the 62 Republicans who voted against the original farm bill. Some of them, like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), are philosophically opposed to farm subsidies.