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No Easy Fix for House Leaders in the Shambles of the Farm Bill Vote

House leaders must determine how they can pick up the pieces after a bipartisan rejection of a five-year farm bill backed by Speaker John A. Boehner.

But some people who follow the farm bill, in the past an easily bipartisan piece of legislation, say there may be no easy fix. The bill (HR 1947) was rejected 195-234 on Thursday, after 62 Republicans voted against it — one out of every four GOP members. Only 24 Democrats voted for it. It couldn’t even draw a majority of the Agriculture Committee Democrats.

Leaders appear to have several options: have the Agriculture Committee rewrite the bill; go straight to conference with the Senate without a House bill, as they did with highway legislation; put the Senate farm bill (S 954) on the floor; or opt for another year-long extension of the 2008 farm bill (PL 110-246).

Three of the four approaches may be politically impractical. The legislation might pass with all Republican votes if it is rewritten to increase cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which now stand at $20.5 billion over 10 years. The nutrition program that’s been sharply criticized by Republicans provides monthly food benefits to more than 46 million Americans.

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow would likely call it a non-starter in conference committee, however, because she has labeled the $20.5 billion in reductions to SNAP unacceptable. The White House also has threatened a veto over the SNAP cut.

It is unlikely that GOP leaders would court Democratic votes by reducing or eliminating proposed cuts to SNAP. Even if every Democrat voted for that bill, there would still be a need for Republican votes to pass the measure.

If leaders skip ahead to conference without a House-passed bill, a majority of members might vote down the resulting compromise out of unhappiness with the process, if not the bill itself. The Senate farm bill, which calls for $4 billion in cuts to SNAP over 10 years, is a non-starter with conservative Republicans and some Democrats.

A one-year extension of the 2008 farm law would seem to be the easy answer. Congress extended the law in December to keep most farm bill programs operating through fiscal 2013 after House leaders kept a farm bill off the floor because they did not have the votes to pass it. But under another extension, some conservation programs such as the Wetlands Reserve would lose authorization and their funding baselines.

Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said the wetlands program is functioning now using past funding that carried over.

“From the farmer’s point of view, it is an enormously popular program. There’s a big waiting list all the time. Purely from a farmer bottom-line point of view, it would be a real loss if it is not available to them,” Hoefner said.

Jon Doggett, a lobbyist for the National Corn Growers Association, noted that an extension through fiscal 2014 would expire during mid-term elections, increasing the likelihood of yet another extension. Doggett said that with each extension, the budget baseline available for a five-year farm bill shrinks.

But as much as his organization wants a five-year bill, Doggett said the corn growers remain opposed to means-testing of farmers for crop insurance premium subsidies in order to attract support from Republicans and Democrats who support such restrictions.

The House narrowly rejected a package of farm bill proposals by Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., that would have ended federal crop insurance premiums for farm operations with adjusted gross incomes of more than $250,000, limited the amount of premium subsidies to $50,000 per person per year, capped reimbursements to private crop insurance companies and limited their rate of return to 12 percent. The proposals fell on a close 208-217 vote.

“For most commodity groups, means-testing would be a very, very difficult concession to discuss,” Doggett said.

Farm groups, however, are willing to back a requirement that farmers comply with conservation plans to protect soil and water to retain crop insurance, Doggett said. The National Corn Growers Association is part of a coalition of farm groups, the crop insurance industry and wildlife and conservation groups that have lobbied for the conservation compliance as an alternative to means testing.

The Senate bill contains the compliance language as well as a provision that would reduce crop insurance premiums by 15 percent for farmers with adjusted gross incomes of more than $750,000.

Means-testing might drive large farm operations out of the crop insurance program, leaving fewer acres insured or under active conservation management, he said.

“Would the public rather have a 600-acre farm under a conservation plan or a 6,000-acre farm under a conservation plan?” Doggett asked.

Although the farm bill is now stalled, lawmakers who want changes to programs under the Agriculture Department’s jurisdiction may have a new target.

The fiscal 2014 agriculture spending bill could go to the House floor as soon as the week of June 24. Democrats say the $6.7 billion proposed for the popular Women, Infants and Children program is inadequate. Robert B. Aderholt, R-Ala., chairman of the Agriculture appropriations subcommittee, says the funding is enough to meet the needs of the expected caseload, which the panel says is slightly smaller than the administration’s figure of 8.9 million people per month.

Kind may reprise his crop insurance proposals as amendments to the spending bill. “That’s a possibility,” Peter Knudsen said.

However, the agriculture spending bill was not listed on the majority leader’s weekly schedule issued on Friday evening, perhaps a sign of dissent associated with it as well. It remained listed on the Rules Committee website.

Philip Brasher contributed to this report.

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