Parties fight for leverage on farm bill

Senate Democrats and House Republicans are fighting for leverage on the $1 trillion dollar farm bill. [WATCH VIDEO]

Democrats are accusing GOP leaders of blocking a conference committee, and on Monday urged them to act “right away” to begin the process of reconciling their competing proposals.

“There is no reason to wait or delay the process any more,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told reporters.

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GOP leaders have yet to send the Senate their farm bill, which is required before a conference can begin and will meet this week to plot strategy, aides told The Hill.

The leverage game is being played on the issue of food stamps. Democrats think they have an advantage if a conference committee convenes right away and pressure builds to complete a farm bill quickly.

House GOP leaders last week stripped their farm bill of food stamp funding in order to secure enough conservative votes for passage of a measure with only farm subsidies.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said the House would work with “dispatch” to produce a food stamp bill but did not say whether Republicans would block a conference committee until one is passed.

Senate Democrats want the conference to begin before the House takes a position on how much food stamps should be cut, since they would be the only ones in conference with a formal negotiating position.

While the Senate farm bill cuts some $4 billion in cuts to food stamps, lawmakers in the House have previously passed a nonbinding budget resolution calling for $135 billion in cuts.

Stabenow on Monday said she was “stunned” to hear Cantor say the split farm bill was not being sent to the Senate and noted that the upper chamber has only 24 scheduled legislative days left to act before farm subsidies expire on Sept. 30.

“We fully expected to receive it in the Senate right away,” Stabenow said. “We can’t go to conference unless we have something from the House.”

The chairwoman said that she wants to take the split farm bill and merge it with the Senate-passed farm bill.

“It appears that leadership wants to pass a Republican only nutrition bill. … We are prepared with what has already been passed to go to conference,” Stabenow said.

Stabenow also ruled out passing a farm bill without a food stamps title, arguing that this would leave food stamps vulnerable to annual appropriation fights.

Lobbyists for the farm industry are deeply concerned about the emerging standoff and fear the process is stalling.

"We're looking for what Speaker Boehner's next move might be. Whether it's sending the bill over to the Senate so that we can get a conference started or taking the nutrition title back to the House Ag Committee, the sooner the better," American Farm Bureau lobbyist Mary Kay Thatcher said.

The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), which helped ensure passage of the House farm bill with a last-minute endorsement, is putting pressure on Republican leaders to act.

“It was a very difficult decision for us to make that decision to go with that House bill that was split. It was done with the promise from House leadership that this would get us one step closer to getting the farm done,” NCGA President Pam Johnson said. “We want to know what the path forward is.”

She said representatives from the corn lobby would be visiting House members this week to demand answers.

“If that answer is, ‘I don’t no,’ that is not an answer that is acceptable to us,” Johnson said.

The corn growers have no position on whether a nutrition bill should pass the House before a conference committee, but Johnson said speed is key.

“We want to here them to name conferees soon,” she said.

Johnson said a simple extension of the 2008 bill would not work for her members because export promotion programs like the Market Access Program would expire in September.

So far, the House has not decided what its food stamp bill will look like. Most sources expect it will cut deeper than the $20.5 billion food stamps that were in the original farm bill, which failed on the House floor last month.

Stabenow warned House Republicans not to pass a bill that contains anything like the 2014 House budget resolution from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
“That is so extreme that we have bipartisan opposition in the Senate,” she warned. “Getting a farm bill done is going to require bipartisanship in the Senate and in the House.”

To prod the House into acting quickly, Stabenow said she would not support a simple extension of the 2008 farm commodity subsidies. Such an extension would not touch on all aspects of the farm bill and would not reduce the deficit, she said.

“I’m not going to support an extension that leaves out big, important pieces of farm policy and keeps subsidies that we all agree should be eliminated,” she said. “First of all, we could not pass that through the Senate, nor would the president sign that kind of bill.”

Stabenow said she is open to an unconventional process to reconcile the farm bill, such as a negotiation just between the chairmen and ranking members of the agriculture committees if no conference can be convened.

“Given the strange process we have had in the House, I will support any fair and open process that gets us a bipartisan, comprehensive farm bill,” she said. 

— This story was first posted at 2:49 p.m. and has been updated.