Despite a rocky journey that’s taken more than two years, the principal negotiators in a farm bill conference showed new signs of optimism Wednesday — but not for passing a final bill before January.
The top four farm bill conferees — House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., House Agriculture ranking member Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Thad Cochran, R-Miss. — met Wednesday for just over an hour. And, according to Stabenow, they discussed “everything.”
“We’re not getting into specifics,” Stabenow told reporters as she exited Wednesday’s meeting. “It’s what you would expect. But we narrowed differences. I think we’ve made great progress.”
Stabenow said they were “nearing differences with every part of the bill.”
“The chairwoman is exactly right,” said Lucas, who is leading the farm bill conference. “We did create progress, we have more progress to make. We have a good-faith effort by the principals, a good-faith effort by our brilliant staff.”
Even Peterson, who has openly shown his frustration with the long and novel farm bill process, said he felt more confident about a final product now than he did going into the meeting.
“Because we made progress,” Lucas said. “On everything.”
Peterson said no one was going to announce developments on anything specific — “I don’t think that would be helpful.” But lawmakers have indicated that the principal disagreements with the farm bill are over the nutrition and commodity titles.
The House bill would cut an estimated $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — more commonly known as food stamps — while the Senate bill would cut $4 billion over 10 years. In the commodity title, the major disagreement is whether to pay farmers based on base acreage or planted acreage.
In an AgriTalk radio interview on Tuesday, Lucas said that while “we’re not quite there yet,” he thought negotiators were at a point where “it should be possible to conclude this process.”
“Can I have a bill passed across the floor of the United States House in the next 10 days?” Lucas rhetorically asked AgriTalk host, Mike Adams. “Man, that’s a lot of drafting and [Congressional Budget Office] scoring and a lot of things to do. But it is possible to have an understanding, a set of principles laid out, a text that the lawyers could work on with the economists to complete so we’d be back next January to finish the final job.”
Indeed, passing a final bill before January appears to be a stretch at this point, with just six legislative days scheduled in the House, and the Senate, like the House, expected to adjourn Dec. 13.
Asked if January was the new timeline on a final farm bill product, Cochran was plainspoken.
“Welcome to the Senate,” he told CQ Roll Call.
But that timeline does not seem to have derailed a potential deal.
One Agriculture aide likened the farm bill, and the seemingly easier farm bills of the past, to Woody Allen’s 2010 film, “Midnight in Paris,” in which the characters were constantly romanticizing the past. The aide noted that the 2008 farm bill had to overcome a veto twice.
But the 2013 farm bill, which could soon become the 2014 farm bill, has faced its own unique challenges, like a refusal to bring the bill up in 2012, a surprise floor defeat in June of 2013, and then, in response, a decoupling strategy that garnered exactly zero Democratic votes on the farm-only provisions or the nutrition bill.
While the House was able to pass those bills entirely with Republican votes, the reduced cuts to food stamps are likely to shed plenty of GOP support. But that shouldn’t be a problem — as long as Democrats, as expected, pick up the slack and Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, brings the bill up for a vote.
“We can’t defend the Democrats to the point of saying ‘yes,’” the speaker said.
Stabenow characterized those comments on Wednesday as “not productive.”