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Stabenow Says Food Programs Will Remain in Final Farm Bill

The chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee said Monday that she is worried lawmakers could run out of time to produce a final farm bill if House leaders do not quickly send their chamber’s agriculture-only version to the Senate.

“I’m calling on the speaker to send us what was passed on Thursday so we can begin to go to conference,” Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow told reporters in a conference call. House Republican leaders have said they may hang on to their measure until they can revise a nutrition title they removed from the bill — thus stalling conference negotiations.

In addition, Stabenow dispelled any notion that nutrition programs would be left out of the final product of a Senate-House conference.

A bill without the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is one that “we could not pass that through the Senate nor would the president of the United States sign that kind of a bill,” the Michigan Democrat told reporters during the call.

The House bill (HR 2642) that passed 216-208 on Thursday left out anti-hunger programs, including SNAP, while proposing to make crop subsidies permanent.

Funding for SNAP could continue without farm bill reauthorization, Stabenow said. However, the program, formerly known as food stamps, could be “vulnerable” to significant cuts and fights in the appropriations process, she added.

“The policy is written through the farm bill. The funding is done through the appropriations process,” Stabenow said. “The appropriators will still make decisions about how much will be spent. In order to have rational long-term policy and tackle the areas of fraud and abuse we tackle [in a comprehensive bill] you have to have the farm bill passed.”

She noted that there are fewer than 25 legislative days for Senate and House negotiators to work out differences and produce a compromise bill that could be voted on in September. Farm and nutrition programs are operating under a scaled-back extension of the 2008 farm bill that expires Sept. 30.

“Time is of the essence,” Stabenow said.

Stabenow said she was “pretty stunned” when the House did not immediately send its bill to the Senate last week so that the two chambers could begin to move to conference. The chairwoman made clear she does not like the House agriculture-only bill that contains 11 of the usual 12 titles or sections of the farm bill.

When the House passed the bill on July 11, Stabenow derided it as “not a real farm bill.” The measure, fashioned to gain votes from conservatives, breaks with more than 40 years of political tradition of blending elements in single bill to draw support from rural, suburban and urban lawmakers.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., seemed to indicate last week that the agriculture-only bill may idle in the House until the nutrition title is revised. The prior House Agriculture Committee bill (HR 1947) proposed $20.5 billion in reductions to SNAP over 10 years as well as tighter eligibility standards people must meet to receive food aid.

The Senate farm bill (S 954) retains SNAP although it includes a $4 billion reduction in funding over 10 years.

Stabenow said a conference cannot begin until the House sends legislation to the Senate.

“We can’t go to conference unless we have something from the House. I’m willing to take whatever the House gives us and then work with the chairman and the ranking member of House committee. I’m confident that we can put things back together to be able to get bipartisan support,” she said.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, an alliance of rural, agriculture and conservation groups, took up Stabenow’s call for action.

“There are enough days left before the farm bill extension expires to conference the bills and create a comprehensive and bipartisan result that can be signed into law, but only if the process begins now,” the organization said in a statement Monday. “There is a lot of work to be done, so let’s get started and create a final bill that maximizes reform and invests in the future of food and farming.”

Meanwhile, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate also said that the House-passed farm bill is dead in the Senate without a nutrition title.

“For 50 years … we have had a partnership of those living in the cities who are interested in nutritional programs, whether it’s food stamps or school lunch, and those who represented rural areas, which I did in Congress, that came together in a farm bill,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

“It was a winning formula,” Durbin said. “Now the House Republicans have given up on that. That’s a mistake.”

Philip Brasher contributed to this report.

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