House passes low-cal farm bill but sows seeds for a possible compromise

07/11/2013 5:43 PM

07/12/2013 7:22 AM

House of Representatives Republicans on Thursday rammed through a newly revised farm bill designed mostly to solve a vexing political problem that has divided their party and frustrated farmers nationwide.

By a largely party-line vote, the House approved 216-208 the unusual bill that includes crop subsidies and other farm benefits but excludes nutrition programs, including food stamps, which have long been part of the legislation. It was a tactical maneuver, designed to mollify conservatives and secure passage, and the latest turn in a legislative process often likened to sausage-making.

While a dozen Republicans opposed their party and voted against the bill, not a single Democrat voted for it.

By itself, the revised 608-page measure unveiled Wednesday night and approved Thursday afternoon will not become law. The Obama administration immediately threatened a veto, and the Democratic-controlled Senate won’t go along with it.

Instead, House Republican leaders contrived its passage so that House and Senate negotiators can get to work on a more politically realistic version that will include both farm and nutrition programs and can win approval in both chambers.

“It’s fraught with long-term consequences,” Dan Haley, a lobbyist for California fruit and vegetable growers, said of the unusual tactic, “but it’s the only chance we have if we want to move ahead.”

Farm-wise, the new House bill largely hewed to what lawmakers considered earlier this year. It would, in time, eliminate the direct payment subsidy for commodities like wheat, cotton and rice, while boosting subsidized crop insurance. It would retain specialty crop research and export promotion programs aiding fruit and vegetable growers. It also extends a helping hand to industrial hemp research and a proposed Christmas tree promotion program, among others.

Much of what happened Thursday, though, broke new ground.

Republican leaders limited debate to one hour and prohibited amendments. The last time the House debated the farm bill, on June, 29 different amendments got recorded votes and dozens more were debated.

Democrats wanted nothing to do with the latest version largely because Republicans stripped out, for now, the supplemental nutrition programs that have been a fundamental part of federal farm bills since at least 1973. Republicans did so to make the bill palatable to enough of their caucus for passage. But GOP leaders said the change is temporary.

“I’m a practical guy,” said Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, “and I came to the realization that I had to think outside of the box.”

Texas Republican Pete Sessions, chair of the House Rules Committee, added that “we have to find a way to pass a bill.”

So far, the Republican-controlled House has been stymied.

Last Congress, the Senate passed its latest farm bill, but the fractious House never acted. This Congress, the Senate approved its bill in June by a 66-27 margin. But in an embarrassment to GOP leaders, the House rejected its own version by a 195-234 margin, with 62 Republicans joining 172 Democrats in opposition.

Several reasons accounted for the earlier defeat. Some staunch House conservatives object to crop subsidies as a matter of both cost and free-market policy. Many Democrats oppose changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, still commonly known as the food stamp program, that under the original House bill would be cut by a total of $20 billion over 10 years.

“All people are asking for is just a little help,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., said Thursday of the absence of food assistance programs in the Republican farm bill.

Underscoring the widening divide, members of the Congressional Black Caucus actively protested the bill, and Democrats used delay tactics and adjournment motions to convey their displeasure.

Traditionally, farm bill authors have combined the farm and nutrition components as a way to rally a combined rural and urban coalition behind the costly legislation. Over 10 years, the Senate’s unified bill has a projected price tag of about $955 billion, with nutrition and food stamp programs accounting for about three-quarters of the total.

Selected House and Senate negotiators will now convene to work out their differences, if they can. There are many farm details to resolve, but the biggest challenge is likely to be efforts to reconcile the Senate’s proposed $4 billion in nutrition cuts with the House’s $20 billion.

“The farm bill,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., a member of the House Agriculture Committee, “is usually one of the most bipartisan things we do around here. Not today.”

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