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GOP Gambles on Drought Assistance Bill

To Avoid Leaving Hill Without Taking Action, House Republicans Push Stand-Alone Measure

Facing no clear consensus on a long-term farm bill, or even a one-year extension, House Republicans today pushed a stand-alone drought assistance measure, fearing Members otherwise would leave for August recess without any action to take home to struggling farmers and ranchers.

Leadership had been scrambling to approve an unpopular one-year reauthorization of farm programs that Senate Democrats already said would be dead on arrival. And with an astounding 80 percent of the contiguous United States currently under drought conditions — according to the National Drought Mitigation Center — top GOP sources expressed serious concern about the optics of doing nothing to aid farmers at the height of summer.

In a private, closed-door meeting in Speaker John Boehner’s office late this afternoon, leaders decided they could gin up enough votes to proceed with extending emergency benefits to farmers in duress. But they did not rule out having to twist GOP arms or appeal for Democrats’ support.

“What was clear was that we can’t send our Members home in the middle of a drought without any action,” one House GOP leadership aide said before the session. The source indicated that the House would attempt to vote on the supplemental agricultural-disaster-only package by Wednesday or Thursday.

What was not immediately clear, however, was the exact shape of the House drought aid package. The details of the bill will be crucial in determining whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), armed with a broad bipartisan five-year farm bill, will bring up the House bill for a vote this week.

“We have a very good farm bill that includes drought relief that is very significant,” Reid said in his weekly media availability with reporters. “I think what the House should do is take these provisions we have in the bill we sent them, and if they want to do something about drought relief, send that to us.”

“We’re willing to do anything that’s reasonable, but an extension some of them are talking about is not reasonable,” Reid added, summarily rejecting the one-year farm bill extension plan the House Rules Committee decided to scrap later in the day.

Leaving the door open to moving the separate disaster piece of the farm bill was a significant move for Reid, especially given that many of his rank-and-file Members believe they should settle for nothing short of the full, five-year extension they passed with 64 votes in June.

Democrats have long believed they have the leverage in the farm bill debate, not only because of the 16 Senate Republicans who voted for it, but also because the package they approved would reduce the deficit by about $24 billion over 10 years, end direct farm subsidies and cut food stamps by $4 billion.

As late as this afternoon, Democrats were clearly divided on how to proceed if the House presents a disaster-only bill. Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) was set on continuing the push for a full bill and not approving a pared-down measure, according to Senate sources.

“We’ve got a five-year farm bill, we ought to have a five-year farm bill,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said, insisting he would not support a piecemeal approach.

The current farm legislation is set to expire at the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, and the drought shows no sign of ending soon. Moreover, with the elections fewer than 100 days away, aides in both chambers said that the stalled farm bill could play an increased role in states with large agricultural influences and those plagued by drought. This could be especially true during the August recess, when lawmakers will spend ample time at constituent events, including town halls, offices hours and coffees.

For example, in Montana — home to one of the nation’s closest Senate races — Democratic incumbent Jon Tester is referred to as “Montana farmer Jon Tester” in every press release issued by his campaign. Tester is running against current Rep. Denny Rehberg (R).

The Tester campaign today released a statement on the bills approved by the Senate and stuck in the House, chief among them the farm authorization bill.

“Amid a record drought crisis, Tester earlier this year supported a responsible, bipartisan five-year Farm Bill to provide certainty for Montana’s farmers and ranchers,” the press release read. “Today there’s word that Rehberg won’t even pass a one-year extension of the current farm bill. Rehberg’s failure to pass a farm bill will leave many Montana farmers and ranchers with uncertainty and without a safety net during one of the driest summers on record.”

One key factor working in favor of the disaster-aid-only bill, if the language is acceptable to the Senate, is that Democrats may not lose much leverage in their fight to pass the overall farm bill. The larger package is still a deficit-reducer, and many have speculated that it could be used in a lame-duck session to offset other must-pass measures.

As word spread that the House would attempt to pass the disaster bill, Senate Republicans also expressed an eagerness to take up the measure and approve it before next week.

“It strikes most of us that some kind of drought assistance clearing the Congress and getting to the president this week would be a good idea, given the severity of conditions all across the central part of the country,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.

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