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Now, the Real Test for the Farm Bill

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senate backers of an updated farm bill are pushing the House to act following Senate passage Monday evening.

The Senate passed the five-year farm program bill Monday evening on an anticlimactic 66-27 vote, just after Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, announced the next steps in that chamber, where the measure faces a more difficult battle. The only question in the Senate was what time the vote would be finished, as senators faced travel delays thanks to bad weather in the Washington area.

The clear majority had supporters making the case to the House Republican majority.

“If they don’t do a bill, direct payments continue,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. “The biggest reform in this bill is we eliminate direct payments. That’s something they’ve talked about wanting to do in the House … so I think they have, you know, strong incentives to get a bill done this year.”

Boehner’s statement said that his chamber’s farm bill would reach the floor with an open process for consideration, a point that Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., highlighted during a brief interview.

“We’ll see, let’s see what happens in the House,” Roberts told CQ Roll Call. “I think they’re going to make every effort. They’re going to try and do it under an open rule, which is what we did last year here. We had 73 amendments.”

Roberts was the ranking member on the Agriculture Committee last Congress and supported last year’s bill. In 2013, changes made in large part to win the support of new ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and other Southerners caused Roberts to oppose this version.

Roberts left open the possibility that a House-Senate agreement could be something that he could support.

Almost all adopted amendments from last year’s Senate debate made their way into the 2013 Senate bill. Boehner’s statement didn’t use the technical term “open rule,” which is the process the House generally uses to consider spending bills and any germane amendment may be offered.

“As a longtime proponent of top-to-bottom reform, my concerns about our country’s farm programs are well known. 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,” Boehner said.

Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., struck many of the same notes at a Monday evening news conference as she had made in an interview that aired Sunday on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers”, where she sought to emphasize the common provisions between the House and Senate bills.

“When we look at this, actually we have a number of areas where we’re close, and then … there are areas, certainly, where we are very different. In conservation, the House and the Senate came together and it has a pretty common conservation title — specialty crops, crop insurance,” Stabenow said. “I mean, we have a number of areas where it’s actually pretty close, if not almost identical.”

Stabenow, however, acknowledged the wide gulf on nutrition assistance, including the program that used to be known as food stamps.

“The big debate, which becomes, unfortunately, a political debate … as much as anything else, is around nutrition and how much we make sure that there’s a safety net not only for farmers, with crop insurance, but families who have temporary disasters in their life through food and nutrition programs,” Stabenow said.

The nutrition programs make up the bulk of the cost of the bill. The Senate version would cut about $4 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over a decade. Stabenow and other supporters of the change note that it is a reduction in improper payments, not a cut to legitimate benefits.

The House Agriculture Committee’s bill would cut $20.5 billion over a decade, cuts that many Democrats find far too onerous.

Boehner also expressed concern about the way the farm bill would change assistance to dairy farmers.

“I had concerns about some of the dairy provisions of the Farm Bill last year, and those concerns remain this year,” he said. “I oppose those provisions and will support efforts on the House floor to change them appropriately.”

“Our dairy program is the same as what the House did,” Stabenow told reporters Monday when asked about Boehner’s view. “I support the proposal obviously that came from the Senate and came from the House Committee. We’ll have to take a look at what those changes are.”

“I can tell you that, as a member of the Agriculture Committee that living through 2009, and the number of farms that we lost, dairy farms that we lost in 2009 because the current system does not work has caused me to want to see reforms in the dairy program,” Stabenow said. “And so, we’ve done that in a responsible way that doesn’t break the bank.”

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