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House GOP Argues Over Next Steps on Farm Legislation

A week after a surprising defeat for the farm bill, some House conservatives who helped sink the legislation are trying to build momentum to split it in half, ending years of precedent for passing agriculture and nutrition legislation in one package.

Members made their case in a House Republican Conference meeting Wednesday morning, but they were rebuked by farm-district Republicans who said the group did them a disservice by voting for controversial amendments that cost the bill Democratic support and then voting against the underlying bill.

The plan would split the agriculture language of the bill from the nutrition portion, which deals with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Many Republicans voted against the bill because they think SNAP costs too much and is subject to fraud.

Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., offered an amendment to the Rules Committee that would have split the bill (HR 1947) apart, but it was ruled out of order. After the conference, he said he had reiterated the merits of that plan to leadership.

“What’s worked in the past didn’t work. So we can sit here and moan and groan and blame each other, or we can say, ‘Alright, obviously times have changed, things are different, we’re going to find a different strategy,’” he said. “The best way forward, I think, is to separate the two and work on them separately.”

‘Unholy’ Combination?

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., said a group of members told leadership that if the bill were split, they would vote for the agriculture portion with no problems. “I think this is our opportunity to break that unholy alliance between nutrition and agriculture that’s been perverting the system for the last 50 years,” he said.

Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., said after the meeting that splitting the bill is unacceptable because each portion could not pass alone. He said there are discussions happening at the leadership level to figure out a way forward.

“Splitting the bill just simply means not having a bill and that’s the least acceptable option. Everything else is on the table,” he said. “I’m working through scenarios with my friends.”

On Tuesday night, Lucas said that leaders have to decide whether to try to pass the bill with more Republican support or seek to bring on new Democrats. “We have a day or two to sort it out, but something has to happen,” Lucas said.

A senior Agriculture Committee member, K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, said he favors seeking more Republican support for the bill than trying to win over Democrats. Some Democrats will support the bill in the end so it could still be considered bipartisan, he said. “At the end of the day, we’ll have a bipartisan bill,” said Conaway, adding that “it is not time” for the bill’s backers “to panic.”

Subsidies Debated

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who is a proponent of the bill, told the conference that splitting it would make it more difficult to enact the kinds of cuts to the nutrition assistance programs that Republicans want.

“For some people it was a pretty simple thing to say, ‘I don’t support any subsidy,’” he said. “They don’t go on to the next piece of the equation, which is voting ‘No’ on the farm bill supports a lot of subsidy because we reformed a lot of subsidy [in the bill]. That realization, I think, will start to settle in better.”

Other Republicans, however, are unhappy at the prospect of returning to their districts empty-handed, and are in part blaming their colleagues. More than 50 Republicans voted for Florida Republican Steve Southerland II’s successful amendment to permit states to set up pilot projects tying food assistance to work requirements but against the bill. Democrats objected to the Southerland plan and said its adoption prompted them to vote against the bill on final passage.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., told the conference that those members who voted for controversial amendments but against the bill had hung agriculture-district Republicans like himself out to dry because there could be political ramifications to the farm bill’s failure.

Cramer said after the meeting that his critique extended to other amendments, like the one Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., successfully offered to revamp the federal dairy program. Goodlatte still voted against the bill.

“I’m very frustrated that we had chairmen — and others, frankly, but especially chairmen — who offer amendments, pass amendments and then vote against the bill. I think that lacks integrity, that lacks legislative integrity,” Cramer said. “We don’t have a recognition by some people in the conference that our majority isn’t big enough to have purity. … To bypass a real reform opportunity for lack of purity really lets the Democrats control the agenda, that was really my point.”

One potential solution could be to split off Southerland’s amendment and pass it as a stand-alone bill alongside the farm bill, where it would not affect the actual text of the legislation. But leadership is reluctant to do so because the move could be perceived as kow-towing to Democrats. There is also skepticism that adjusting the strategy would gain any more Democratic votes.

Democrats Doubted

Southerland said he and other Republicans believe that Democrats were not truthful in saying they would have supported the bill if not for the amendment. Instead, he thinks Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., believes their interests are better served with a temporary extension.

“I’m not of the opinion that that had anything to do with it. I have my suspicions that obviously the Dems wanted Nancy Pelosi’s bill to stay in place,” he said.

That comes as Democrats begin a push to take up the Senate-passed farm bill in the House. Reps. Bruce Braley of Iowa, Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Dave Loebsack of Iowa announced on Wednesday that they have introduced the Senate version as a House bill.

“After voting down the farm bill last week, the House must act quickly to move the farm bill process forward,” Loebsack said in a statement. “Partisan bickering will only further delay enactment of a long-term farm bill.”

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