By Molly K. Hooper - 09/21/12 09:55 AM EDT
Frustrated with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his lieutenants, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has launched an 11th-hour effort to pass a five-year farm bill.
In a Congress marked by partisanship, rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans from farm-heavy districts are working together to assess whether the farm measure has the votes to pass the House.
The initiative comes as House GOP leaders have shown little appetite in moving the farm legislation that cleared the Agriculture Committee, 35-11, in July. While top-ranking Republicans say the bill lacks the votes to pass, other members are dubious of that claim.
Some believe that Congress will soon pass a short-term extension of the farm law, which expires at the end of this month.
Berg, who is in a close Senate race, told The Hill that five Republicans and five Democrats agreed to launch an unofficial whip count to demonstrate that the House should vote on the bill.
The freshman member planted himself in the well of the House during votes on Thursday, carrying large white index cards filled with lists of names. He talked with a handful of members and compared notes with fellow whipper Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.).
Peterson, Berg and their colleagues started their vote count last week, asking lawmakers two questions: “Would you support bringing the bill to the floor? Would you support passage of the bill as it came out of committee?”
Given the potential for “poison pill” amendments that both parties could offer should the measure be considered without restrictions on the floor, the bipartisan group has since refined its approach.
“We're just asking them one question: Would you support the bill as it came out of committee? So Republicans helping me whip this are coming back to me with their totals to me and I’m going to talk to Collin Peterson [for his count],” Berg said in an interview with The Hill.
According to at least a dozen lawmakers, including Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has not conducted a formal whip effort on the five-year authorization bill.
Boehner on Thursday said the House will tackle the farm bill after the elections, reiterating that the pending bill doesn’t have the votes. Skeptical members this month have noted Boehner’s mantra of bringing bills to the floor to let the House “work its will.”
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) has faced deep divisions within his own party, but managed to pass the bill through his panel. He has had to toe a delicate line of working with his leaders, as well as his exasperated committee members.
The Senate in June passed its five-year farm bill, 64-35, with the help of 16 Republicans. Senate Democratic leaders have criticized the House for its inaction on the bill.
The Senate-passed bill is different than the House Agriculture Committee’s version. So even if the House passes its measure, a conference committee would be needed.
There are many conservatives inside and outside of Congress who are balking at the House bill’s $900 billion price tag, while supporters of the measure think they can corral the votes to pass it through the lower chamber.
Liberal Democrats also oppose the bill, saying it cuts too much from food stamps programs. House Republican leaders have done whip counts on a temporary extension of the farm bill, but Agriculture panel members are pressing hard for their long-term measure.
Without an official whip count, however, an involved GOP lawmaker told The Hill it was “confounding” that leadership hasn’t engaged in the normal member education process, followed by counting votes for and against a measure.
Berg noted that he is on McCarthy’s whip team, but is not acting in that capacity.
Over the past few days, Berg and other interested lawmakers have met repeatedly with Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and McCarthy. Those talks have not yielded action.
Emerson told The Hill that when she spoke with Boehner on Thursday, he said, “Talk to the whip.”
Still, it is Cantor who ultimately decides what is considered on the House floor.
Boehner confidant Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), who is locked in a tough reelection race against Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), made that point during an interview with an Iowa radio station earlier this week.
Latham added his name to the growing list of Republicans who have signed a Democratic-led discharge petition to force the House leaders to consider the farm bill on the floor. Sixty-four members have signed the petition, including 11 Republicans.
But the petition needs 218 signatures, and that will not occur before the House is expected to recess on Friday. And any motion to adjourn is likely to attract bipartisan opposition.
Berg, who has signed the discharge petition, appreciated Boehner’s promise to pass the farm bill in 2012, especially after meeting with the Speaker each day this week.
The North Dakota lawmaker recognizes the difficulty of forcing a vote before the House heads out of town, but said that the current effort under way will continue.
Berg added that in a “worst-case scenario,” the whip count could help Boehner when he moves to pass the bill.