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Jobless Benefits, Farm Bill Hit Snags

The most obvious place to find the money to offset extended jobless benefits, a demand of the GOP, may be in the bill that provides food stamps, but that plan will first require a to-be-determined deal on the farm bill.

House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas didn’t mince words on the topic after a Wednesday meeting of the top four farm negotiators on the Senate side of Capitol Hill.

“I want this over with more than you can possibly imagine,” the Oklahoma Republican said.

Lucas said no one from leadership had approached him about using the expected savings from a farm agreement to offset the cost of extended unemployment benefits — or anything else.

“We on the conference have been focused on ag policy, and that’s not an issue that’s been brought to my attention by anybody,” Lucas said.

“Leadership is a wondrous and mysterious thing,” Lucas quipped, noting that during the recent budget negotiations, “House leadership made it quite clear that we weren’t a part of those … so I have not heard anything different.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., signaled Tuesday that he was open to the idea of linking farm savings with jobless benefits.

Several Senate Republicans who backed the initial vote to take up the bill have pushed for offsetting the roughly $6 billion cost of the three-month patch now pending before the Senate. But GOP ideas so far are non-starters on the Democratic side. A coalition led by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., is pushing to eliminate a child tax credit for undocumented immigrants to pay for the unemployment extension and to undo a reduction in military retirement benefits in last month’s budget agreement.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., meanwhile, has called for a vote on delaying the health care law’s individual mandate for a year.

Reid’s said he’s willing to look at other offers, but in a statement, New York Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer said, “I don’t think there’s much enthusiasm for a three-month offset deal on our side.”

As for the Democrats’ suggested plan, Tuesday’s optimism that a farm bill conference report could be completed this week — with or without jobless benefits — waned on Wednesday.

Two Senate Agriculture Committee members suggested that is in part because of direct involvement by Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, on dairy programs.

“The speaker has been clear that supply management will not be in the final farm bill,” one House GOP leadership aide said of a contentious provision to regulate the production and price of milk in the United States. That Senate provision is also championed by House Agriculture ranking Democrat Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota. Peterson said when the conference first convened that he would get the votes to “bulldoze” dairy language favored by Boehner out of any deal.

“The speaker used to be on the Ag Committee, the once-powerful House Ag Committee, and was a very active participant. He is not a big supporter of the current dairy programs, so I think he has some strong feelings about that,” said Senate conferee Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who added, “I’ve not talked to John.”

Roberts is a former chairman of the House Agriculture panel. He was trumped for ranking member on the Senate panel in this Congress by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.

Senators outside the top four are venting their frustration about the package they think may emerge, with Iowa Republican Charles E. Grassley criticizing possible removal of an amendment he sponsored that also appeared in the House bill regarding the definition of “actively engaged” farming.

“All this debate between the two houses has been about how much to cut out of food stamps,” Grassley said. “So, they’re going to cut $8 billion from food stamps and still give hundreds of millions of dollars to millionaire farmers, and it just doesn’t seem equal.”

Cochran’s role has been a boon for a number of Southern interests, including maintaining a controversial Agriculture Department catfish inspection program from the last farm law that critics call duplicative.

“I don’t know where it fits in the laundry list of things — dairy, food stamps, everything else — but it apparently has become a significant issue,” Roberts said of the catfish debate.

Sen. John McCain, who filed an amendment to the Senate farm bill to kill the catfish program along with New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, pressed for an open conference vote on the program. The Arizona Republican noted that while he and Shaheen were blocked from a vote, the House bill contained the provision.

“The need to repeal the catfish program far outweighs whatever parochial reasons exist to prop up a small number of domestic catfish farmers,” McCain wrote in a letter to Cochran and Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. “If Farm Bill conferees are denied the opportunity to vote against this reckless and wasteful catfish program, please be assured that I will work with my colleagues in the House and Senate to legislatively terminate it at every opportunity.”

Lucas declined to categorize any sort of agreement about handling of amendments like the catfish one at an open conference, saying such talk would be premature.

“Before you can have such a meeting, there are a number of issues that have to be sorted out, and I don’t know that we’re quite at that point yet, but we work every day, all day long, trying to make progress,” he said. “When we’re ready to have a public conference, we’ll talk about what’s on the agenda.”

Emma Dumain and Meredith Shiner contributed to this report.