Sens. edge toward deal on farm bill

Democratic senators on Monday appeared close to averting a showdown on the Senate Agriculture Committee that had threatened completion of a new farm bill this year.

Chairman Tom HarkinTom HarkinDemocrats are all talk when it comes to DC statehood The Hill's 12:30 Report Distance education: Tumultuous today and yesterday MORE (D-Iowa) is edging closer to an accommodation with other key committee Democrats and Sen. Saxby ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissLobbying World Former GOP senator: Let Dems engage on healthcare bill OPINION: Left-wing politics will be the demise of the Democratic Party MORE (R-Ga.), the committee’s ranking member, Senate aides said. The deal would protect direct payments to farmers from substantial cuts that Harkin had been contemplating, according to one Senate aide.

Harkin spokeswoman Kate Cyrul said “a good deal of progress” had been made, and that Harkin was hopeful remaining details would come together to allow for strong bipartisan support at a markup next week.

“We were on DEFCON Four and the red lights have been averted,” joked another Senate aide, who described the members as being “pretty close” to a deal.

Division among farm-state Democrats had threatened to prevent the Senate from moving forward with the legislation this year, frustrating lawmakers and agriculture lobbyists alike. Harkin has been at odds not only with Chambliss, but also with Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusBooker tries to find the right lane  Top Lobbyists 2017: Hired Guns GOP tries to keep spotlight on taxes amid Mueller charges MORE (D-Mont.).

Farm lobbyists and staff members privately have expressed frustration with Harkin, whom they charge has repeatedly delayed plans to move forward with a markup. Harkin most recently scheduled an Oct. 4 markup, but postponed it because of complications with the Senate schedule, according to a spokeswoman.

Some farm group representatives in private have criticized Harkin for doing too much of his farm bill work behind closed doors, although Jeff Mullins of the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership said Harkin and his staff have been open in conferring with his group on the farm bill’s conservation title. He said Harkin’s staff showed his group discussion drafts and considered their comments.

The main issue splitting members has been how to divvy up a limited supply of money for farm payments, as well as nutrition, conservation, renewable energy and rural development programs also covered by the farm bill. Harkin has been pressing to reduce direct payments to farmers in order to pay for more conservation programs, several agriculture lobbyists said. 

Farm lobbyists last week said they believed Conrad and Chambliss were prepared to offer their own rival farm bill in committee if they were unhappy with Harkin’s approach. These lobbyists also predicted that Conrad and Chambliss would have had enough votes to defeat Harkin’s bill in committee.

Conrad has received support for his position from Baucus, who on Oct. 4 moved an agricultural tax package through the Finance Committee. That package included tax credits to pay for a permanent disaster assistance program supported by Conrad and Baucus.

Agriculture lobbyists said Baucus’s action was meant to step up the pressure on Harkin to move on a bill. Finance members have taken an active role in the farm bill debate, and in addition to Conrad and Baucus, Finance includes Agriculture Committee members Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowThe Hill's 12:30 Report Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Democrats to Trump: Ask Forest Service before shrinking monuments MORE (D-Mich.), Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoOvernight Regulation: Feds push to clarify regs on bump stocks | Interior wants Trump to shrink two more monuments | Navajo Nation sues over monument rollback | FCC won't delay net neutrality vote | Senate panel approves bill easing Dodd-Frank rules Overnight Finance: GOP delays work on funding bill amid conservative demands | Senate panel approves Fed nominee Powell | Dodd-Frank rollback advances | WH disputes report Mueller subpoenaed Trump bank records Senate panel moves forward with bill to roll back Dodd-Frank MORE (R-Idaho) and Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration Thanks to the farm lobby, the US is stuck with a broken ethanol policy MORE (R-Iowa).

The impasse in the Senate has been a worry to some House members, and Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) last week said he hoped Finance would spur the Agriculture Committee to action. “This one has been stuck in the committee itself, essentially because of a disagreement among Democrats on how to proceed,” Pomeroy said of the farm bill.

Concluding work on a farm bill is important to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who took an unusually active role in crafting the House bill, which was approved in July. Pelosi did so in part to ensure that rural freshman Democrats sitting on the committee could point to the farm bill as an accomplishment in next year’s elections. Pelosi has hailed the House bill as a step toward reforming agricultural subsidies, although critics such as Oxfam and the Environmental Working Group say it does not go far enough.

One Senate aide said Harkin, Chambliss and Conrad all have an interest in reaching an agreement since this could make it easier to move a bill through the Agriculture Committee with broad, bipartisan support. This, in turn, would make the farm bill easier to defend on the floor from opponents who argue it does not do enough to reform subsidy programs.

Much of the fight over the Senate farm bill echoed disagreements over the 2002 bill, farm lobbyists said. A key difference, however, was the presence of then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who took an active interest in completing the legislation.

“I still think there’s a lot of optimism a farm bill can get through this year,” Robert Guenther of the United Fresh Produce Association said. Fruit and vegetable growers likely would be among the big winners if a farm bill is completed, as the House bill included an additional $1.8 billion for those farmers.