Stabenow’s Dual Roles: Key to Budget, Farm Bill Negotiations?

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 31, 2013 at 4:00am

“A lot of caffeine,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow said Tuesday when asked how she planned to make it through the upcoming weeks, adding, “and a lot of late nights and hard work.”

As two formal House-Senate conferences convened Wednesday to hash out a budget blueprint and an overhaul of farm programs, the Michigan Democrat was the lone senator appearing at both venues.

Stabenow’s dual capacities signify the importance of one conference committee’s deliberations to the other’s.

“I think I’m actually in a unique spot,” Stabenow said in a brief interview Tuesday evening before the two conferences formally met Wednesday.

As chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, she’ll be most intimately involved with the farm bill, which will no doubt include a robust effort to defend the Senate position against the roughly $40 billion in cuts to the food stamp program over the next decade that are in a House-passed bill.

“As usual, most of the discussions in the conference committee are done between the leadership on the committee — House and Senate,” Stabenow said of the farm conference. “We’ll recess, and we’ll have an opportunity to continue negotiating.”

“We’ll be working with members and bringing something back to the committee for any opportunities for amendments and so on,” Stabenow said.

Truth be told, it won’t take much for the process of reconciling either the budget resolutions or the farm bills to beat the 2008 farm policy measure.

That conference process is an example of just how contentious House-Senate negotiations can get. The 2008 farm conference held marathon open sessions of recorded votes after huddling behind closed doors — in that case seeking a deal that would work around the hostile administration of President George W. Bush.

The path to enactment had no shortage of stumbles, most notably an embarrassing enrollment error in which the entire trade title was left out of the package that went to Bush’s desk (and thus forcing not one but two veto overrides).

This go-round, the budget blueprint and farm conferences are linked not only by the calendar, which had each panel running through opening statements on the same day; there’s also the matter of money.

A recurring theme at Wednesday morning’s Capitol meeting of budget conferees was the priority to find the budget savings needed to replace the automatic spending cuts required by sequestration.

“I served in the House the last time we actually balanced the budget,” Stabenow said at the budget conference. “President Clinton was in office, and we balanced the budget for the first time in 30 years by making tough choices to grow our economy and strengthen the middle class — and we can do it again with a reasonable, balanced plan that doesn’t sacrifice the future and doesn’t sacrifice opportunity and prosperity for middle-class families.”

Hailing from a big manufacturing state, Stabenow also cited the importance of supporting jobs in that sector during her opening comments at the budget meeting. Separately, she’s one of more than 20 senators involved in a renewed push, led by Delaware Democrat Chris Coons, to promote manufacturing legislation.

The reference to a balanced approach was a common theme among Democrats, who once again encouraged support for finding new revenue through cutting some tax expenditures and ending other targeted provisions on the revenue side of the federal ledger. Meanwhile, they will be blasting the possibility of Medicare and Social Security changes that affect those programs’ beneficiaries.

Nonetheless, members in both parties on both committees were optimistic of deals with real negotiations behind the scenes, even with the wide gaps — on taxes and entitlements at the budget committee and on food stamps at the agriculture committee.

“I think we’re actually at the point where most of the staff work has been done and really it’s time for members now to start making compromises necessary to put this bill together,” House Agriculture’s ranking member, Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., said in his opening statement.

Peterson has been among those expressing opposition to handing off too much control of the farm bill process to their budget counterparts, who likely will want to take advantage of mandatory savings.

One Senate Democratic aide suggested that Stabenow’s positioning could serve farm producers and other agricultural interests well since it would reduce the risk of a budget deal instructing the agriculture panels to make unwanted cuts.

Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., highlighted Stabenow’s many hats in a statement Wednesday.

“Senator Stabenow plays such an important role in this budget conference as someone who fights to make sure the focus stays on the middle class while we continue tackling our deficit fairly and responsibly,” Murray said. “She is an incredibly hard worker who understands agriculture and budget issues inside and out and knows how to bring both parties together to get something done.”

North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven, a farm bill conferee, said the connection between the two conferences is clear.

“The two go together,” Hoeven said. “We really should reform of our long-term mandatory spending programs. The farm bill’s an example where we’ve done the work. We’ve got to agree on, obviously, on food stamps, but at the end of the day, we’re going to have a good farm bill.”

Sen. Thad Cochran, Stabenow’s ranking member, praised her leadership of the committee.

“She’s a very busy senator,” the affable Mississippi Republican said with a laugh, adding that Stabenow’s seats on both panels could also help his cause.

“I think it would be, yes. You know, she has a position of responsibility for budget provisions, and I think her influence in both capacities will help us get a bill passed,” Cochran said.