Senate Democrats are moving to farm legislation that they think could bolster several red-state incumbents who are seeking reelection in 2014.
Last year, the Senate passed a five-year farm bill 64 to 35 only to see it die in the House because conservatives opposed the funding levels for food stamps.
Democrats believe the failure of the farm bill helped them retain the majority in the 2012 election, and are hoping for a repeat as they enter the 2014 election cycle.
“There is no question that the House refusal to take up farm bill helped Democrats retain the Senate,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. "Democrats see an opportunity to make headway in red states and rural America."
GOP leaders refused to bring up a five-year farm bill last year, but are sending strong signals that they won’t let Democrats use the issue against them again.
In a memo to the House Republican conference sent on Friday, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said he was committed to moving a five-year farm bill this summer.
In the meantime, Senate Democrats are moving full-steam ahead with legislation that won wide, bipartisan approval last year.
Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is poised to announce a committee markup as early as next week, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said a floor vote is coming in May.
Democratic aides and consultants said passage of the farm bill in the Senate could boost vulnerable red-state Democrats like Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), and help the party retain open seats in South Dakota and Montana.
“If Republicans continue to block the farm bill, it could be beneficial again to Democrats as yet another example of GOP obstructionism,” said Brendan Daly of Ogilvy Washington, former aide to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Pryor, who is running for reelection in a state where Mitt Romney took more than 60 percent of the vote, said he is committed to getting a bill passed.
“We need to pass a farm bill,” Pryor said this week in an emailed statement. “As Chair of Agriculture Appropriations, I’m working closely with Chairwoman Stabenow and Ranking Member Cochran to fix these issues.”
Pryor said he would fight to maintain strong subsidies for southern crops and a requirement that foreign catfish be inspected — a program that helps fishermen in his home state.
Hagan, another vulnerable Democrat running in a conservative-learning state, is also highlighting the legislative push.
“Passing a Farm Bill is one of Senator Hagan's top priorities this Congress. She thinks it's important for farmers in North Carolina to have a long-term road map, and that certainty and predictability can only come with passage of a long-term farm bill,” an aide said.
Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former aide to Reid, said the farm bill played less of a role than it could have in the 2012 election cycle, but argued it could be more of an issue in 2014.
“The question is … whether Sens. Pryor, Hagan and Landrieu can use the lack of action to attack their Republican opponents,” he said.
Manley said House Republicans would hurt their image if they used the farm bill to try to slash billions of dollars from food stamps.
Conservative groups aren’t backing down, however, and have pledged to keep food stamps front and center in the debate over farm policy.
“For us it’s a food stamp bill. We are going to make it very clear to their constituents that they are voting to reauthorize Barack Obama’s food stamp bill,” said Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler, adding that 80 percent of the bill goes to fund food stamps. He said food stamp use has exploded under Obama.
Holler pointed out that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told the Ohio Farm Bureau this spring that he will do a farm bill, but that food stamps would be slashed.
“We had a very tough time last year getting to a farm bill. We are going to do a farm bill this year. And I expect the Senate will do a farm bill as well,” Boehner said in March, according to The Lima News in Ohio. “The really big fight will be over how big the changes we’re going to make on the SNAP [food stamp] program.”
Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) plans to mark up his farm bill on May 15, according to an aide. He plans to include $38 billion in total deficit reduction, which is $3 billion more than the bill his committee produced last year.
The Senate bill was scored as reducing deficits by $23 billion, but achieving that level could be harder this year. The Congressional Budget Office re-scored the Senate bill this year as saving only $13 billion, meaning Stabenow must search elsewhere for cuts.
The main cut in both farm bills will be the elimination of direct farm payments. This subsidy is based on historic production. Because it goes to individuals no longer farming, it has become a political albatross.
Last year, the House and Senate differed on how to replace direct payments, with the House choosing to retain price-based subsidies more amenable to southern crops while the Senate leaned more heavily on a revenue-based crop insurance program.
This year, new Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) is expected to demand a farm bill closer to last year’s House version.
Differences between the Lucas and Stabenow bills on food stamps are expected to grow. Lucas had $12 billion more in food stamp cuts last year, while Stabenow had changes that totaled only $4 billion.
Other major fights on the farm bill involve the continuation of main pieces of the dairy supply management system — which Boehner has described as Soviet-style — and of the sugar quota.
Also queued up is a fight over whether to adopt a pathway to larger cages for egg-laying hens, which supported by the egg industry but opposed by pork producers who fear a slippery slope.