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Campaign Fodder in Stalled Farm Bill

With agriculture programs headed for expiration at the end of the month, Democrats are hoping farm state Republicans will be put at a political disadvantage.

“It’s leaving a lot of Members in rural areas out on a limb over why they can’t convince their leaders to take up the bill,” a Senate Democratic leadership aide said.

The Senate passed its five-year agricultural program reauthorization in June, but House GOP leaders have yet to consider a House Agriculture Committee-approved measure because of concerns that the votes aren’t there. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has been grappling with Republican disagreements over how much to cut from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.

“There is a deep divide in their party,” the Senate aide said.

The issue has already popped up in a marquee Senate race in North Dakota.

Rep. Rick Berg (R) is running against Democratic candidate Heidi Heitkamp for the seat of retiring Sen. Kent Conrad (D). Heitkamp, a former state attorney general, blasted Berg this week for failing to help get more than a dozen signatures on a discharge petition that would force the House bill to the floor. The petition requires 218 Members for action, and to date more than 50 Members have signed on.

“The failure of Rick Berg to get even a dozen signatures on the discharge petition after almost two months of work is a huge reversal from a year ago, when he told reporters that he had relationships not only with the House freshmen, but powerful House committee chairmen as well,” the Heitkamp release said.

For his part, Berg believes he has left no stone unturned when it comes to passing a farm bill, including being critical of GOP leaders who, last week, floated the possibility of trying to pass a three-month extension of current farm programs.

“Rick believes we have the bipartisan support to pass a full five-year farm bill and the idea of a three-month extension of the farm bill perfectly sums up everything that is wrong with Washington,” a Berg spokesman said. “On one hand we have House leadership saying we cannot keep kicking the can down the road on important issues, but their inaction on bringing a five-year farm bill to the floor shows they are completely content in doing so.”  

Berg’s spokesman also said that House leaders won’t know if they have the votes for the House bill unless the chamber takes it up.

“The only way we’ll know is if they actually put something on the floor instead of just talking about it,” the Berg spokesman continued. “Rick thinks that our full five-year extension will pass, as this is a bipartisan bill that sailed through committee. Leadership is stalling for no good reason at the detriment of our farmers and ranchers.”

Despite his preference for a full reauthorization, the spokesman added that Berg would not yet rule out voting for a short-term extension.

“If that was the only option on the table, Rick would have to discuss with farmers and [agriculture] groups back home before making a voting decision, but the fact remains the best option, and one that can pass, is the full five-year bill,” the spokesman said.  

A House aide said Tuesday that the extension is not likely to come to the floor this week.

The farm bill has also become an issue in the re-election campaign of Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) and could become a focus in campaigns in other farm states.

In the Indiana Senate race, where Rep. Joe Donnelly (D) faces GOP candidate Richard Mourdock, a tea party favorite, Donnelly is aggressively challenging the state treasurer for not taking on conservatives who oppose the farm bill.

“Farmers can’t wait for Washington to finish playing partisan games,” Donnelly says on his campaign website. “Indiana families and communities are still reeling from this year’s record drought and they need the certainty of a full five-year farm bill. Unlike Richard Mourdock, who is standing with his ‘My way or the highway’ special interest allies, I’m proud to be standing with Republicans and Democrats alike to stand up for Hoosier farmers.”

Donnelly’s comments come as conservative forces have lined up against the farm bill, which they argue spends too much at a time when the deficit has topped $1 trillion for the past few years.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page on Tuesday came out in support of leaving the bill off the floor schedule this week. The conservative Club for Growth has also said signing the discharge petition would be tallied against lawmakers in the group’s 2012 key vote scorecard.