After stunning defeat, lawmakers scramble to salvage farm bill


Supporters of a five-year farm bill are scrambling to pick up the pieces after the measure went down in stunning defeat in the House.

Thursday's 195-234 vote to kill the $940 billion package blindsided proponents, who were confident of the bill's success and are now struggling in search of a plan to resuscitate it.

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GOP leaders say they've made no decisions about the next step, but the heads of the House Agriculture Committee – Reps. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) – spoke Thursday afternoon in an early show that they're still hoping to prevent the need for any short-term extensions of current farm policy.

"We'll figure it out," Peterson said to Lucas just after the vote.

Whether that's possible in the face of a divided House, a recalcitrant GOP conference and the thorny politics surrounding the package, however, is by no means certain.

Farm bills have historically won overwhelming support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. But despite pressure from GOP leaders, 62 Republicans opposed the package Thursday – many more than supporters expected – while only 24 Democrats backed the measure.

The vote was an embarrassing defeat for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), reviving doubts about his decision to consider the bill via regular order and, more broadly, his ability to rally his own troops behind legislation of any significance.

Deflecting those questions, House Republican leaders on Friday continued to blame Democrats for the bill’s failure, accusing Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in particular of undermining support.

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"We expected Democrats to produce the votes they promised on a long-negotiated bipartisan measure to get us to conference, rather than Nancy Pelosi using her opposition to common-sense work requirements as an excuse for playing politics," said Rory Cooper, spokesman for Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), "so we haven't decided the next step yet."

Both Pelosi and Peterson said many more in their party would have backed the final product, but two last-minute conservative amendments – one championed by Boehner, the other by Cantor – scared the Democrats away.

"Those two [amendments] cost us a lot of votes," Peterson said Thursday, "and I would guess it didn't get them a damn thing."

Indeed, Pelosi on Wednesday had warned that Democrats would flee if the package became more conservative.

“If they change it on the floor, then all bets are off," she told The Nation.

Cooper said there was “no timetable” for a decision on the way forward for the legislation. The House leaves for a weeklong recess after next week.

A Boehner spokesman referred questions to Cantor's office.

Dale Moore, executive director of public policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said supporters of the package were left "kind of stunned" by its defeat, and that lawmakers haven't moved far beyond "the wound-licking process."

"I know what the Spurs felt like after Game 6," Moore said, referring to San Antonio's come-from-ahead loss Tuesday night in the NBA playoffs.

If they decide to take another stab at the bill, GOP leaders would face the central question of whether to shift the package to the right to attract more Republicans, or shift it to the left to lure more Democrats.

"There's the penultimate question, and candidly I'm not sure" of the answer, Moore said.

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said Friday that the future of the bill remains up in the air, but he doubted that efforts to attract more conservatives would bear fruit.

"Clearly, they need more Democratic votes, so going to the right would not be an option," Hammill said.

Supporters of the five-year proposal are quick to note that the timing of Thursday's vote – which came more than three months before the current farm bill expires – gives lawmakers plenty of cushion for finding a solution and avoiding a short-term fix.

"It's way too early to talk about extensions," Moore said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the head of Senate Agriculture Committee who shepherded a bipartisan farm bill through the upper chamber earlier this month, is awaiting a conference with a House version.

Peterson, who spoke with Stabenow Thursday, said the worst-case scenario would be a short-term extension of current law. He predicted lawmakers simply won't have the appetite to revert to the 1949 farm bill, as would happen on Oct. 1 if Congress doesn't act at all.

"The current law we can live with," he said. "So without a bill we'll end up with an extension, because there's no way we can go back to '49 law."