Boehner grasps for middle on farm bill

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) faces a divided conference and some of
the trickiest legislative waters he’s had to navigate since the
fiscal-cliff fight in trying to manage a farm bill fight in the House.

The nearly $1 trillion measure is supposed to come to the floor for a vote next week, but may be pulled from the calendar due to a lack of support, according to congressional and K Street sources.

Democrats, angered over the $20.5 billion food stamp cuts included in the bill to win over Republicans, are not yet showing enough muscle to pass the bill. And just more than half of Boehner’s conference appears to support it.

{mosads}Boehner is said to personally oppose many parts of the bill and his Monday statement did not say how he would vote on it. His leadership team is under pressure from fiscal conservatives to cut more deeply into food stamps and payments to producers.

But rural Republicans want to see the five-year farm subsidy measure enacted and successfully lobbied leaders to bring the measure to the floor. They would be angered if it is pulled.

GOP leadership is not eager to move any more bills that divide their majority, but the issue is further complicated by Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy’s support for the farm bill. The California Republican hails from a rural district.

At the center stands Boehner, who issued a careful statement on Monday aimed at finding the middle.

“As a longtime proponent of top-to-bottom reform, my concerns about our country’s farm programs are well known,” he said. “But as I said on the day I became speaker, my job isn’t to impose my personal will on this institution or its members.”

GOP aides said that approach is emblematic of how Boehner is running the House, especially after an attempt to forge a grand top-down deficit bargain last year with President Obama failed. 

“Boehner pledged to be a different kind of speaker, and that is to deal with these big issues in the right way, out in the open, with everyone participating,” a GOP leadership aide said. “That’s the way Congress should work. It’s how Boehner leads.  And it’s what is best for this institution and for the country.”

The House bill saves $40 billion compared to existing farm legislation, which Boehner sees as a good start. But the aide said Boehner wants to see “more conservative reform” in the bill, including in the dairy provisions.

Democrats argue the statement reflected Boehner’s weak hand given his divided conference.

“It looks so clearly doomed for failure. … He’s unable to forge consensus in his conference,” one Democratic leadership aide said.

House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said Republicans have told him they are having trouble finding 150 votes for the farm bill and that Boehner’s opposition is a key factor, since it gives cover for others to vote down the measure.

With many Democrats saying they are undecided, he said he feared the bill could be pulled from the calendar.

“I have been talking to Chairman [Frank] Lucas [(R-Okla.)], and I argue that we need to push forward, and if it fails, it fails. At least we know how everybody stands,” Peterson said.

Central to the farm bill fight is a battle over a complex system of dairy farm subsidies that Boehner last year described as “Soviet-style,” but which a number of his own members support.

“I oppose those provisions and will support efforts on the House floor to change them appropriately,” Boehner said in Monday’s statement.

Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and David Scott (D-Ga.) will offer an amendment to change the dairy provisions.

They are pitted against Peterson and Agriculture Chairman Lucas and a pro-dairy provision GOP whip operation led by Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) and

Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) is lobbying Democrats to support the dairy provision.

Both the Peterson and Goodlatte dairy provisions would eliminate existing milk subsidies and replace them with a new form of insurance. The voluntary insurance, partially subsidized by tax dollars, would guarantee at least a $4 difference between feed prices and milk prices.

The key difference is the Peterson version would force insured farmers to commit to limiting their production.

The National Milk Producers Federation says this supply management provision is crucial to ending low milk prices and limiting the costs of the insurance.
Processors represented by the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) say that the provision will cost consumers up to $3 billion annually due to higher dairy product costs. They also say it would impose $100 million in regulatory costs on processors.

IDFA also highlights a Congressional Budget Office finding that the Goodlatte provision does not cost the budget more than the Peterson version.
Boehner’s support for the dairy provisions will be difficult to stop and could doom the underlying bill, supporters of the farm bill warn.

Peterson said some members who don’t care either way about the dairy provision are being moved to support the speaker “because it is the easy thing to do.”

But a supporter of the Goodlatte provision said that if the amendment passes, it could make it easier for some conservatives to swallow the rest of the bill.

— This story was updated at 11:39 a.m. to clarify Speaker Boehner’s position on the farm bill.

Tags Bob Goodlatte Boehner John Boehner Peter Welch

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