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Farm Bill Is Latest Breakthrough for Congress

A Congress known for epic dysfunction and expected to be a foil for President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address is starting to creak to life — this time with an agreement on a five-year farm bill announced Monday.

The farm bill deal would be the first formal conference report of the 113th Congress — coming more than a year in and joining recent budget and spending compromises as signs Congress can get at least some of the work that used to be of the vanilla variety done.

Of course, the fact that the farm bill is more than a year overdue merely emphasizes how dysfunctional Congress has been of late.

Nonetheless, the relief at the Capitol in recent weeks has been palpable.

“It is a conference report,” said Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. “And we’re still smiling at each other.”

Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., who shook hands with House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., on her own $1 trillion spending bill a few weeks back, walked by Stabenow and a small group of reporters in the Capitol basement and exclaimed, “Your turn!”

House leaders planned to bring the bill to the floor Wednesday, before Republicans head to Maryland’s Eastern Shore for their annual issues retreat.

“We haven’t slept for a while. … [We’re] running on caffeine and adrenaline at the moment,” Stabenow said when asked about how the critical final dairy compromise came together. “I’m very pleased to say we have brought everyone together.”

Other conferees, including House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., also backed the deal.

“Compromise is rare in Washington these days but it’s what is needed to actually get things done,” noted Rep. Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking member of the committee.

The recent spate of agreements has raised hopes both at the White House and on Capitol Hill that Congress will be able to hammer out at least a few more modest deals before both sides set their sights exclusively on the November elections.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin struck an optimistic note Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” suggesting “a new bipartisan spirit” with the latest budget deals.

“We certainly need it on Capitol Hill,” the Illinois Democrat said. “Speaker [John A.] Boehner had to stand up to his tea party Republicans and say I know it’s bipartisan, I know it’s a compromise, we’re going forward. If he continues in that spirit, maybe we’ll get a farm bill after waiting on the House for two years.”

And White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer mentioned the farm bill Sunday on CNN’s conveniently named “State of the Union” show on a relatively short list of measures on which Democrats and Republicans could work in harmony.

“There were some items right before Congress we can do together, passing immigration reform, extending unemployment benefits for 1.6 million Americans, patent reform, innovation act … the farm bill. There are things they can get done,” Pfeiffer said.

But the respite from partisan standoffs on big-ticket business probably won’t last long.

Obama is preparing a “year of action” speech Tuesday that’s certain to push past Congress and outline a host of executive actions, and both parties are preparing their political messages heading into the midterm elections. But the lawmakers in attendance Tuesday night will be on the verge of what once would have been called routine, but now counts as a major legislative achievement — passing a farm bill important to both rural and urban lawmakers alike.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday that he plans to take up the measure during the current three-week work session. “It’ll reduce the deficit and cut waste and fraud, all while protecting hungry children and families,” he said.

The measure would provide about $20 billion in deficit relief, money that could theoretically be used elsewhere to pay for other priorities such as reviving the extended jobless benefits, which has been a key priority for congressional Democrats and the White House.

The deal will cut food stamps by $8 billion over a decade, far less than the $40 billion sought by the House and double the $4 billion sought by the Senate, by limiting the ability of states to use minimal energy subsidies to qualify residents for the program.

Stabenow defended the level, despite opposition from some liberals, such as Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.

“We have done nothing that changes eligibility or eliminates anyone from food assistance help,” she said. “We have gone after waste, fraud and abuse and we are tightening up this connection with [the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.]”

The deal doesn’t exactly portend a return to the “good old days,” but Monday’s conference agreement suggests that the system sometimes still functions, albeit belatedly.

White House officials have also mentioned transportation and infrastructure efforts to boost the economy. A conference committee has been established to work out differences between the chambers on a water development reauthorization, with a new highway bill needing to move this year, too.

The conferees still have to sell the package to the rank and file, although there are no immediate signs of trouble.

There have been no shortage of stumbling blocks since the Senate passed a bipartisan farm bill in 2012 without the House taking action. Much to the consternation of Stabenow and like-minded lawmakers, the budget agreement designed to avert the fiscal cliff at the start of 2013 included a farm program extension that maintained the often-derided system of direct payments for another year.

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