By Erik Wasson - 07/31/12 12:21 AM EDT
House Republican leaders might not have the votes to pass a stopgap farm bill this week.
The scramble for votes has sparked speculation that leaders in the lower chamber might have to scrap their plan to deal with the politically sensitive issue.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his lieutenants, wanting to avoid an intraparty battle on a $957 billion five-year bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee, scheduled a vote on a one-year farm program extension that includes drought relief provisions.
“I don’t see how they have the votes,” one longtime lobbyist said. “I have yet to have one person tell me this thing has a chance.”
The one-year extension of subsidy programs expiring Sept. 30 is being caught in a pincer.
Some conservatives, like Republican Study Committee head Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), say they oppose all farm bills and will reject it no matter what.
Other conservatives will only support it if they can be guaranteed that the one-year measure is not a “backdoor” attempt to conference a five-year farm bill with the Senate.
Fiscal groups such as the National Taxpayers Union and Taxpayers for Common Sense oppose the extension.
“Last month, leadership pulled a similar trick with the highway bill. Republicans should be fighting to cut spending and limit government, not compromising with Democrats to spend billions of dollars on farm subsidies and food stamps,” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said.
Meanwhile, Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) says he is against it unless he can secure assurances that it will lead to a House-Senate conference. And Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) says the upper chamber will not consider a one-year bill.
The House Agriculture Committee and Senate-passed five-year farm bills lock in benefits for farmers, including a reformed dairy program and expanded crop insurance, that could be lost if a long-term farm bill is punted to the next Congress.
Peterson said for the first time in his nearly 22 years in Congress, leadership lawmakers are trying to move a farm bill without the backing of rural Democrats.
Peterson’s position is backed up by the powerful American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and the National Milk Producers Federation, which both came out against a one-year bill on Monday.
“A one-year extension offers our farm and ranch families nothing in the way of long-term policy certainty,” said AFBF President Bob Stallman.
Other commodity groups, including the corn and soybean lobbies, have staked out a similar position, urging leaders to go back to the drawing board and move a five-year bill.
“With the Farm Bureau opposed and without Peterson on board, I don’t see how this moves forward,” said Daniel Murphy of the American Soybean Association.
Sources said that the GOP whip count on Friday indicated that the party cannot pass a one-year bill on its own.
“The conservative outrage with the bill is such that Republicans alone are unlikely to be able to carry it,” said Andrew Moylan of the National Taxpayers Union.
House GOP leadership did not respond to requests for comment on the whip count.
Leadership officials could be saved by liberal legislators, many of whom might vote for the one-year bill because it doesn’t contain the billions of dollars in food stamp cuts in the Senate- and House Agriculture Committee-passed bills.
But aides said leading food-stamp supporters like Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) are leaning against the bill and instead want to see a longer-term bill in which farm subsidies are reformed and food stamps maintained at current levels.
“I do think that there is always a concern that we’re here to carry the water for Republicans when they can’t get a bill passed,” Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) said.
Similarly, food-stamp advocates are not urging members to support the extension.
“We are focused on ensuring the strongest possible farm bill, not on the process in getting there,” said Maura Daly of Feeding America, when asked if members should support it.
If the farm bill is pulled, lobbyists hope that the need to act on the drought forces leaders to allow a pre-conference on the five-year farm bills to go forward in August, and that this yields action in September.
They concede, however, that a better shot at passage might be in the lame-duck session, when leaders will be looking at a way to cut spending in order to turn off the $109 billion in automatic spending cuts coming in January due to the sequester.
The House Agriculture Committee measure would cut $35 billion from the deficit, while the Senate bill would trim $23 billion.
Sources said the bill being withdrawn is a more likely scenario than it being defeated on the House floor. Such a move, though, would attract negative headlines for Republicans with nearly three months to go before the election.
Although the GOP could try to blame Peterson and Democrats for blocking drought relief, voters could just as easily blame Republicans because they control the House, sources said.
“It is going to go out with a whimper,” one lobbyist said.
Larry Graham of the National Confectioners Association, which opposes the current sugar support program on the grounds it inflates prices, said kicking a farm bill into the next Congress could help his cause — if the GOP wins control of the Senate.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), who crafted the one-year bill at the behest of his leaders, has said that a short-term measure might be needed to give lawmakers time to work out differences between the chambers.
His office did not respond to questions on Monday.
Some farm-bill experts are shaking their heads.
“This is my fifth farm bill, and this is the weirdest,” said one expert who requested anonymity.
“It is a symptom of the way things are now. Everything is so partisan,” said another.