Boehner gives farm bill a push

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Wednesday said he would vote for the House farm bill as early whip counts showed the nearly $1 trillion measure might fall short.

“Doing nothing means we get no changes in the nutrition programs, and as a result, I’m going to vote for a farm bill to make sure that the good work of the Agriculture Committee ... gets to a conference,” Boehner said.

The announcement came as a surprise because Boehner voted against the 2002 and 2008 farm bills and is lobbying to alter the dairy program in this year’s version.

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Boehner is more supportive this time because the farm bill contains $20.5 billion in food stamp cuts and ends direct farm payments, which go to people even if they no longer actively farm. In total, the legislation would cut $40 billion from projected spending. 

The Republican conference is divided on the farm bill, presenting Boehner with one of his biggest challenges since the fiscal cliff battle. Funding for the farm programs has been such a thorny issue that leaders never brought a bill to the floor in 2012.

Rural Republicans want to see the five-year farm subsidy measure enacted and would be angered with leadership if they pulled the bill. GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) is pushing to get a farm bill done, while Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has not said how he will vote.

But Boehner and the GOP leadership are under pressure from fiscal conservatives to make deeper cuts from food stamps and from payments to producers.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) were working furiously on Wednesday to gin up support.

A formal Republican whip count of the bill on Wednesday after Boehner’s statement “was better than anticipated,” according to a deputy GOP whip. Peterson, meanwhile, estimated he could get somewhere around 50 Democrats in support, though other sources said the number could be lower. 

Lucas said Boehner’s remarks were a shot in the arm for his vote-gathering efforts.

“Anytime the Speaker of the United States House announces that he supports something, that always makes the author of the bill very happy,” he said. “But can you say that means anything is a lock? No.”

Later, while waiving his whip list in the air, Lucas said the bill had new momentum.

“We’re moving forward,” he said. We have the wind at our backs.”

But a member of the Republican whip team said that, while Boehner’s statement appeared to sway some members, Democrats would need to come through with a sizable number of votes.

“Obviously the Hastert rule can’t apply,” the member said, referring to the informal rule that House leaders only bring forward bills that more than half of the majority supports.  If the farm legislation does not attract the support of a majority of House Republicans, it will be very difficult to pass the lower chamber.

Peterson said that Boehner’s remarks might turn off some Democrats but were likely a net positive for supporters of the bill.

“It probably helps us,” he said.

However, liberal Democrats oppose the farm bill over the cuts to food stamps, and Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) told The Hill he was working furiously to whip opposition. “We should not be voting for a bill that only makes hunger worse. … As a Democrat, if we stand for anything, we should stand for the most vulnerable.”

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who also supports farm payments, has not said how she plans to vote but on Thursday said Democrats “see the value of a bill coming to the floor and the value of a bill going to conference.”  

Conservative Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who supports the farm bill despite a desire for deeper cuts to food stamps, said he has more members moving from “no” to “lean no” on his whip list.

He said Boehner’s comments to the conference and to reporters helped.

“That’s a headline: Boehner and I are in the same place,” King said. “We have some momentum in this conference now. That helped.”

“The only way to get to [food stamp] reform is to pass a bill,” he said. “I think we can put together 218 [votes] … It’s close.”

King said a Wednesday presentation from Lucas at the conservative Republican Study Committee was also helpful. Following that meeting, Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) predicted that the leadership could pass the bill — but only with help from Democrats.

Meanwhile, conservative groups are pushing hard against the farm bill. 

Asked about the Boehner remarks, the conservative Club for Growth noted that it would likely punish members voting for the bill in its annual scorecard.

“The Club for Growth opposes the House farm bill and will likely include a vote on the bill in our 2013 congressional scorecard,” spokesman Barney Keller said.

The conservative group Heritage Action condemned Boehner’s announcement.

“Republicans retained control of the House to serve as a check on President Obama’s disastrous policies. Advancing a nearly $1 trillion food stamp and farm bill ignores that mandate. Now is not the time to be locking in the President’s failed stimulus policies,” the group said.

Their statements were countered by a ringing endorsement from the powerful American Farm Bureau.

“With his statement of support for the farm bill today, Speaker Boehner is giving all Americans, including the farmers who feed them and those concerned with nutrition programs, real optimism that Washington can get important work done in 2013,” the group’s president, Bob Stallman, said. 

If the House fails to act on a farm bill, the decision could reverberate into the battle for the Senate in 2014.

The upper chamber passed a farm bill on Monday in a 66-27 vote, and Senate Democrats are eager to blame the GOP for holding up the funding as they fight to retain seats in rural states like Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, South Dakota and Montana in 2014.