House to vote on farm bill in big test for Boehner, Republican leaders

The House will vote Thursday on a new farm bill in a major test for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the rest of the House GOP leadership team. 

The new bill includes updated subsidies for farmers but strips a reauthorization of the food stamp program that was included in the last farm bill.

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Fights over food stamp funding were a major issue when that bill was rejected last month in an embarrassment for GOP leaders. 

GOP leaders blamed the rare defeat on the floor of legislation backed by the House majority on Democrats, who they said had promised more votes than they delivered. But Republicans lost many of their own in the vote, too, and GOP leaders were widely criticized for the defeat. 

After furiously whipping the bill on Wednesday, House GOP leaders now believe they can pass the measure over the opposition of farm groups and some conservative organizations. 

But it's unclear whether they can count on votes from many Democrats. An aide said Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, would vote no. The White House late Wednesday threatened to veto the measure.

Republican rank-and-file members are also coming under pressure from interest groups. The American Farm Bureau Federation blasted out a letter to its members urging a no vote, while the conservative group Heritage Action also urged a no vote.

In a key shift just before the vote, the National Corn Growers Association urged members to approve the split farm bill. NCGA had joined 531 other farm organizations in urging House leaders not to split it last week.

“While we disagree with the policies of the legislation and are dismayed with the process that leads us to this sad situation, we see no other way to move the farm bill to a conference with the Senate unless the House approves the bill before it today," the corn lobby said. “We urge members of the House to approve the bill and we expect immediate action by a conference committee to secure a five year farm bill we can support."

But other groups are actively opposing the bill. 

The Coalition for Sugar Reform, for example, was urging no votes because the revamped House farm bill would make the sugar program permanent. 

As a sweetener to conservatives, the bill would repeal the underlying 1938 and 1949 farm laws and replace it with the 2013 version. Doing this would remove the threat of the farm bill expiring every five years, a deadline that has allowed Congress to expand farm subsidies in the past.

Groups opposed to wasteful spending were also opposing the bill because of this change, which they said would remove pressure to revisit and justify agriculture subsidies.

"It is a staggering bait-and-switch that will bury taxpayers under billions of subsidies in perpetuity," said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The majority leader's office announced the vote just before midnight after the Rules Committee approved a rule for the farm bill that does not allow amendments.

The House will vote on the rule for the debate at 10 a.m. Thursday before a dramatic final vote as early as 12 p.m.

The effort to split the bill emerged after the earlier farm bill failed in a 195-234 vote. Liberals balked at the $20.5 billion in food stamp cuts included in the bill, while conservatives voted “no” because they wanted more food stamp cuts.

An emergency Rules Committee meeting kicked off shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) arguing that he now views splitting the bill “as the best possible alternative that we have.”

“I’ve got to achieve a majority consensus,” he said. “Maybe its time to do something different.”

In one of the toughest spots of his political life, Lucas urged Democrats as well as Republicans to support the new approach.

“As someone who was 6 foot 3 and 165 pounds as a high school sophomore, I would dance with anyone,” he noted. 

He argued that the farm-subsidy-only part of the farm bill could be conferenced with the Senate-passed measure if the Senate decided to offer its nutrition provisions. The Senate farm bill cuts food stamps by $16 billion less than the original House measure.

Despite the Lucas efforts, it appears that the GOP will have little, if any, support from Democrats in passing the split farm bill.  

Peterson, who led a faction of 24 Democrats to support the failed version, did not show up at the Rules Committee hearing.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) blasted the decision to move the bill in a statement.

"Republicans know this is a bill to nowhere — even if they succeed in passing it through the House, the Senate will not consider a Farm Bill without nutrition assistance," he said. “I am extremely disappointed that Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor have chosen to bring this partisan bill to the Floor."

Rules Committee Ranking Member Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said that she did not trust Republicans to come back and pass a food stamp bill later.

Lucas told the Rules markup that his committee would quickly work to draft a new food stamp bill. He noted that if no bill is passed in the House, the current program would continue on autopilot if appropriators continue to fund it annually.

House Republican leaders on Wednesday had intensified their attempt to pass a farm bill after initial whip counts came up short.


Lawmakers said GOP leaders believed splitting the bill was the most viable option to getting a farm bill passed. Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) pushed the idea and got the support of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

The modified bill contains all the amendments adopted on the floor last month.

The split bill is opposed by 532 farm groups led by the American Farm Bureau and National Farmers Union, as well as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth.

Farm groups are opposed to splitting the bill because for four decades, they have relied on a coalition with urban liberals who support expanded food stamp access to pass farm bills. The 2008 farm bill passed with veto proof majorities over the objection of fiscal conservatives and President George W. Bush.

Club and Heritage argue that simply splitting the bill does not provide enough spending cuts. They said leadership just wants to get to conference with the Senate and bring back a united farm bill to the House that is similar to the Senate bill, which cuts food stamps by $4 billion.

“Talk about a whipsaw effect for a lot of us,” Stutzman said Wednesday. “I’m a Farm Bureau board member back in Indiana. Now conservatives are against it. Maybe if both of them are against it, it is the right thing to do.”

GOP leaders face tough options if the idea of splitting the bill comes up short on Thursday.

Some Democrats said they would like to see the original bill come back without an amendment by Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) to require food stamp recipients find work or enroll in job training.

Hoyer said Wednesday he believed there were about 40 Democratic votes for the farm bill before final amendment votes.

Republicans said Wednesday that their conference would revolt if the Southerland language was stripped out.

If GOP leaders decide not to move a united bill to the political left to pick up Democrats, they could try to pass a GOP-only bill cutting food stamps by up to $135 billion.

It is not clear if such a bill would gain enough of the 62 Republicans who voted against the original farm bill. Some of them, like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), are philosophically opposed to farm subsidies.

Extending the current farm bill would not lead to any deficit reduction. The original House farm bill was scored as having nearly $40 billion in savings.

--This report was originally posted at 8:34 p.m. July 10 and was last updated at 11:36 a.m. July 11.