Farm bill future unclear

By Don Davis

Republicans who want a smaller federal budget and Democrats who oppose proposed food stamp cuts joined Thursday to defeat a five-year farm bill.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said there may not be a second chance to write a farm bill this year, but others said it could return as soon as next week.

Lucas’ bill called for the largest cuts in food stamps in a generation and has the biggest farm program reforms since 1996.

The 234-195 surprise defeat came after a speeded-up debate, designed by supporters in part to avoid a potential loss of votes when congressmen headed home this weekend.

The Hill, a Washington news organization, reported that Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said the bill could return to the House floor next week.

“We can correct it if (Democrats) are not going to help us,” he said.

Republicans had expected Democrats to deliver more votes, but The Hill reported that Democratic leadership and White House threats to veto the bill cut that number.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., blamed Republican leaders for the defeat.

“The farm bill failed to pass the House today because the House Republicans could not control the extreme right wing of their party,” said Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. “From Day 1 I cautioned my colleagues that to pass a farm bill we would have to work together. Instead, the House adopted a partisan amendment process, playing political games with extreme policies that have no chance of becoming law.”

Peterson said he will continue to work to pass a farm bill, but “I have a hard time seeing where we go from here.”

Two amendments that passed contributed to the defeat. One was a controversial dairy program change; the other one would allow states to place more requirements on food stamp recipients.

A majority of Republicans supported the bill. But 62 in the GOP joined 172 Democrats in voting against the measure.

Much of the Democratic opposition came because the bill would have cut $20 billion from the food stamp program over the next decade.

Senators last week easily passed their version of the bill. It could come back in the House before current farm policy expires this fall, but the path to reconsider it was not clear Thursday.

Lucas continued work on a farm bill that Peterson began four years ago when Democrats ran the House and the Detroit Lakes, Minn., man was agriculture chairman. Lucas worked with Peterson to craft a bill they thought could win enough votes from both parties to pass.

Democrats strongly oppose food stamp cuts. But many Republicans said the $20 billion the bill would chop was not enough.

Peterson could attract just 24 of his party’s votes after amendment after amendment to ease food stamp cuts failed. Senators cut just $4 billion from food stamps in their bill.

The Republican-controlled House turned back several attempts to restore the $20 billion food stamp cut. Key was a 234-188 vote against fully restoring funding.

The House kicked into high gear late Wednesday and Thursday to finish debate on 103 amendments on the farm bill.

Overall, the bill often turned to insurance programs to replace direct government payments to farmers.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Peterson had agreed to support the bill regardless of the outcome of a dairy program amendment, a signal that the bill could pass.

The issue resulted in a 201-135 vote to reject the bill’s new dairy policy after Boehner sent congressmen a rare letter urging them to support a change.

The bill would have established an insurance program to give dairy farmers payments when the difference between feed and milk prices narrows, and would have required farmers to limit milk production when milk prices fall.

The provision Boehner supported would continue the insurance part of the dairy portion of the bill, but does not require farmers to cut production.

Peterson wrote the bill’s dairy provision.

“We’ve been working on this for four years,” Peterson said. “Clearly, the current policy does not work because we have all the volatility.”

He said the provision Boehner supported would allow price volatility to continue and force taxpayers to pay more to support dairy farmers.

“This is a crazy thing that we are talking about doing here,” Peterson said. “We are putting responsibility on the taxpayers.”

Peterson said his plan was voluntary, and farmers could have stayed out of the program and the government would not restrict their production.

The Peterson plan and one that passed both would replace current subsidies paid to dairy farmers.

The House voted 220-207 to keep the current sugar program in effect, a victory for sugar producers but not for the beverage and food industry that uses sugar.

Existing law that would continue under the bill limits sugar imports and sets prices for about 5,000 American farmers who produce sugar. An Iowa State University study shows the program increases consumer prices $3.5 billion annually.

The bill would have extended the sugar program through 2018.

The failed amendment by Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., would have reduced federal sugar support.

An attempt by Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., to limit crop insurance benefits to farmers with annual incomes less than $250,000 was defeated 217-208.

Reuters news service contributed to this story.

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