Speaker Boehner might block farm bill

Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) history with farm bills and with his GOP freshman class indicate that this year’s measure is headed nowhere fast.

The House Agriculture Committee is scheduled to mark up its farm bill on Wednesday. Panel Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) is pushing for a floor vote before farm programs expire at the end of September.

Lucas admits he faces a tough road to passage, but he remains optimistic.

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There is pressure on Lucas to produce, especially after the Senate cleared its bipartisan farm bill last month, 64-35. However, most Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), voted no.

Supporters of the House bill acknowledge that Boehner’s distaste for farm subsidies and fear of a conservative rebellion are major obstacles. 

The Speaker’s office is publicly hands-off on the issue.

“The majority leader’s office handles the floor schedule,” spokesman Michael Steel said. 

But longtime lobbyists see it differently.

“Boehner hates the farm bill,” one lobbyist said. “Every time he has had the choice to bring up a bipartisan bill and face a large defection, he has decided not to. I don’t see him risking embarrassment for a farm bill.”

The lobbyist’s frustration aside, Boehner has sought to reflect the views of his conference through conservative-pleasing legislation such as the House budget. The Speaker has also brought bipartisan bills to the floor despite suffering defections from his party, including votes on the 2012 appropriation omnibus, the highway bill and the extension of the payroll tax cut.

Asked if Boehner personally supports the farm bill, Steel said that “the Speaker appreciates the work Chairman Lucas has done.”

Lucas would only say that Boehner has not done anything against his bill — so far.

“He hasn’t done anything yet that would prevent it from coming to the floor,” he said. 

“In previous farm bills, he represented his good folks in Ohio, I am sure, but he is the Speaker of the House now — it is a different responsibility,” Lucas added. 

Boehner voted against the 2002 and 2008 farm bills, arguing that they distorted market forces in favor of government intervention. 

Boehner had supported a 1996 version that phased out subsidies and eliminated price-based supports, but he found the later versions, which included countercyclical payments triggered when market prices dip below targets, lacking. 

Lucas’s farm bill would eliminate direct payments and has some reforms and cuts to food stamps that are favored by the right. It also does not include earmarks, which Boehner strongly opposes. Critics of the 2002 and 2008 farm bills say those measures were loaded with pet projects. 

Still, the Lucas bill calls for price-based subsidies that the right is wary of.

On top of his personal distaste for farm subsidies, the Speaker is unlikely to act on an expensive bill that could fracture his conference so close to the election. 

On Tuesday, influential conservative groups came out strongly against the House measure, which has been estimated to cost more than $900 billion over 10 years. The Senate-passed bill has a larger price tag of $969 billion over the next decade.

The right-leaning groups, including Tea Party activists from Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks and more established players like Americans for Tax Reform, Heritage Action and the National Taxpayers Union, said the strong rural economy and $15 trillion debt “make it essential that Washington’s role in agricultural policy be reduced.” 

They singled out new crop-insurance measures in the bill as particularly wasteful. 

Lobbyists say that Boehner might view a short-term extension, and banking on a more conservative Congress next year, as a better option than allowing a divided vote on a farm bill this year. 

To convince leaders to schedule a vote, Lucas is hoping for a strong panel vote this week. 

“It still depends on the final tally when the markup is over. I am hoping for a nice margin and a bipartisan number,” Lucas said. “The completion of a positive, well-balanced, bipartisan bill gives them something to think about.”

The bill is supported by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), the ranking member on the Agriculture Committee. 

But other key Democrats, including Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), have ripped it. The third-ranking House Democrat on Tuesday called the legislation an “abomination” because it contains $16 billion in cuts to food stamps. 

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office said the Virginia Republican is waiting for the markup before considering floor time. Cantor previously convinced Lucas to postpone his markup until after the July 4 recess.

In a recent summer memo that detailed the GOP’s legislative agenda, Cantor did not list the farm bill. 

Peterson said rural Democrats will benefit in November if leadership shelves the farm bill, noting that farmers are watching the issue closely. 

“Voters are going to know who screwed this up,” he said. 

If the farm bill does die after this week’s markup, lobbyists and aides say the matter could be kicked into next year through a simple extension or could be wrapped into a giant lame-duck bill that also deals with expiring tax cuts and automatic, across-the-board spending cuts. 

Agriculture Committee members fear this outcome.

“This becomes a big problem for us if it goes into the lame duck,” Peterson said. “There is so much stuff on the table … it will be taken away from our control.”

— David Kaner contributed to this report.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect the fact Boehner has brought bipartisan bills to the floor in the face of conservative defections.