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Republican Divide, Mistrust Dooms Farm Bill in House

Failure is major blow to House Republican leaders

Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Thursday he has no regrets about retiring. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Thursday he has no regrets about retiring. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 5:20 p.m. | The farm bill’s defeat Friday wasn’t the outcome House Republican leadership was expecting. 

GOP leaders headed to the floor for the vote with an inconclusive whip count. They knew the vote would be close. But they felt fairly confident based on private conversations they had throughout the week that their commitment to hold a vote on immigration legislation in the coming weeks would sway enough Freedom Caucus members whose votes they needed.

“We thought we’d actually get it because we thought a date certain for immigration reform would be sufficient,” Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry said. 

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise acknowledged heading into the vote that leadership had a “narrow path” to passage, with Democrats planning to oppose it and some moderate Republicans too. It was clear the Freedom Caucus, which on Thursday had called for an immigration vote before the farm bill’s completion, would be the deciding factor.

At the beginning of the vote series while the House was still dispensing with amendments, McHenry, R-N.C., Scalise, R-La., and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., were working the floor, talking to Freedom Caucus members to see where they were going to come down. Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., participated in some of the conversations but didn’t seem to be as heavily engaged in the whip effort. 

It was one of the conversations on the floor, McHenry said, that made clear leadership’s offer wasn’t enough and the farm bill would fail. He declined to say which conversation that was but the GOP leaders’ posturing did change as they neared the end of the amendment votes and moved into the Democratic motion to recommit.

Leaders had mostly moved away from the part of the House chamber where the Freedom Caucus members usually gather, although Scalise lingered a bit longer in conversation with a few.

McHenry spent minutes huddling over what appeared to be the whip tally sheet and then went up to Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, apparently delivering the bad news. Afterward, he chatted with McCarthy. 

Failed 198-213

When the vote was called, Ryan took out his vote card — something he rarely uses as speaker — and cast a “yes” vote. But the “yes” votes never got close to the number of “no” votes. Before the vote closed, Ryan switched to a “no” vote to preserve the ability to bring up the measure at a later time. 

The bill failed, 198-213. Thirty Republicans joined all Democrats in voting it down.

Barely a dozen of the “no” votes came from Freedom Caucus members like North Carolina’s Mark Meadows, the caucus chairman, Ohio’s Jim Jordan and Pennsylvania’s Scott Perry, who wanted to vote on immigration before the farm bill. 

Several moderate Republicans like Reps. Leonard Lance of New Jersey, John Katko of New York, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Fred Upton of Michigan voted against the bill because of policy provisions in it. 

The bill’s defeat was a major blow to Republican leaders who had been touting the bill as a fulfillment of their campaign promise to overhaul welfare programs. 

The measure included more stringent work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, that — coupled with job training and assistance programs — many Republicans believed will help get people off welfare and into the workforce.

Overhauling welfare programs and reducing poverty was a key plank of House Republicans’ 2016 “A Better Way” agenda. The House has passed legislation from the other five planks of the agenda, although not all of it has gotten through the Senate to become law.

It’s not just the policy defeat GOP leaders are facing. They can recover from that, as they still plan to bring this bill back up later this summer. 

GOP fissures

The longer-term impact is likely to be on their ability to lead a GOP conference that just willingly let their its own fissures spill further into view.

But the leadership team swatted off such talk.

“If you’re in House leadership in either party, embarrassment is just certainly part of the process,” McHenry said. 

Scalise vowed Republicans would keep working on the farm bill “until we get it done” and then pointed to the minority as a scapegoat. 

“For every Democrat to vote no, they helped to take down the bill,” he said.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer was baffled that Scalise would try to blame Democrats. 

“For not doing their job?” the Maryland Democrat said when asked to respond to the majority whip. “My response is, I think in November the people are going to give us their jobs — to people who do get the job done.”

Some rank-and-file Republicans blamed the Freedom Caucus, not their leadership. 

“The speaker has assured them that we’re going to deal with [immigration], and I believe the speaker,” Rep. Susan W. Brooks said. 

“I was very disappointed that they would not take his word apparently that this is going to happen,” the Indiana Republican added. “And I think it sends a very bad message to our agricultural community about the fact that this bill was held hostage in many ways.”

Oklahoma GOP Rep. Tom Cole called the situation “a case of not being able to take yes for an answer.” He said he has no problem with members for voting against the farm bill for policy reasons but he doesn’t think it’s fair to hold the bill hostage to something else. 

“If you have a particular objective and the leadership said, ‘I promise you we’ll meet that; you’ll get this vote on this day,’ I don’t know why you wouldn’t accept that,” Cole said. “I mean that’s like not trusting people and their word.”

Perry admitted that the Freedom Caucus didn’t trust leadership to follow through, which is why they wanted to vote on immigration before the farm bill. 

“Our past experiences inform us of how things will go,” he said. “And once you give up your vote on something that is desired around here, you don’t have the ability to get the things that you’re asking for.”

Immigration drama

Passage of the farm bill was called into question throughout the week as moderates came out in opposition and conservatives withheld their support in an effort to secure a floor vote on immigration legislation

Several House Freedom Caucus members wanted to halt debate on the farm bill so the House could take up immigration legislation first.

McCarthy had agreed to schedule a vote in June on an immigration measure by Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., and Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, that Freedom Caucus members favor. He suggested there could be a second bill as well.

“There’s a lot of good communication, people working together on that,” McCarthy said. During meetings Thursday, both moderates and conservatives were trying to find common ground, he noted.

“We came to an agreement that I think gives everybody what they want,” Scalise said on his way to the vote Friday. “That’s a vote on Goodlatte-McCaul, as well as an opportunity to try to work with the president on an alternative that can pass on DACA.”

GOP leaders had promised the Freedom Caucus the vote they wanted on the Goodlatte-McCaul bill — a request the conservatives had decided Tuesday evening to make in relation to their supporting the farm bill

A source familiar with the negotiations said the Freedom Caucus was told they could pick any date they wanted before June 22 for the vote.  A number of Freedom Caucus members privately said they wanted to vote for the farm bill but needed Meadows to sign off and he didn’t, the source said. 

“This is all the more disappointing because we offered the vote these members were looking for, but they still chose to take the bill down,” Ryan spokesman Doug Andres said.

Meadows told reporters after the farm bill failed that there had never been a deal reached on immigration and that the offer for a vote on in June “was not fully clear.” He declined to elaborate on that comment and said he didn’t want to say anything negative, noting that McCarthy had been negotiating in good faith. 

“We really just need to deal with immigration in an effective way and hopefully we’ll be able to do that,” Meadows said. 

Varying versions

Views on exactly what leadership, the Freedom Caucus and the moderate Republicans who were also involved in the immigration negotiations had discussed and agreed to is somewhat different, depending on who is describing it. 

Even what was agreed to months ago is in question. Freedom Caucus members say that leadership had committed during spending bill negotiations to hold a vote on the Goodlatte bill, while leadership contends they only committed to whip votes for the measure and bring it up if they could get enough support. 

“We have a disagreement on what we agreed on,” Perry said. “What that breeds is what you just saw. … We don’t get what we thought we were getting and so that creates this environment unfortunately. That’s why it essentially turns into cash on the barrelhead.”

All sides agree that leadership committed this week to finally schedule a vote on the Goodlatte-McCaul bill.  McCarthy only publicly said that would be in June. And although the one source suggested the Freedom Caucus would have their pick of dates between now and June 22, Perry said the earliest date offered was for the first week of June. 

The goal was — and perhaps may still be — to have a floor vote on immigration before June 25, the earliest date when a discharge petition on immigration that moderate Republicans have been gathering signatures on could be called up for a vote. All sides agree that the moderates can get the 218 signatures needed for the petition before that date. At press time the petition had 196 signatures. 

GOP leaders contend it was not realistic to stop debate on the farm bill and throw an immigration bill on the floor, as the Freedom Caucus seemed to be suggesting. 

“They’re trying to extract something on immigration that couldn’t be effectuated on this day,” McHenry said. “So we’ll have to deal with immigration one way or the other. I think what happened today unfortunately fuels the discharge petition.”

Rep. Jeff Denham, one of the moderates leading the discharge petition, agreed.

“I would say given the breaking of the agreement that was made today, you’re going to see more Republicans that are frustrated and angry enough to sign onto something that they’ve never signed onto before,” the California Republican said. 

Denham’s understanding was that leadership had reached an agreement with Freedom Caucus leaders and the moderates pushing the discharge petition for a floor process that would use a rule to govern debate on the Goodlatte bill and another bill the members were still negotiating. 

Leadership and Freedom Caucus members had acknowledged the negotiations of a second immigration measure but did not indicate they had agreed to a rule structuring the floor debate. 

The uncertainty of what that second bill would look like and whether the Goodlatte bill would be marked up in committee or otherwise altered before going to the floor were among the things the Freedom Caucus had wanted to clear up before relinquishing their leverage on the farm bill.

“There’s all these variables,” Perry said. “And unfortunately you’re at a disadvantage when you’re negotiating for something that you can’t really define. [GOP leaders] get to define everything and you don’t get to define anything and you’re supposed to pay up front. That’s hard.”

Bridget Bowman and Alan Ota contributed to this report.  

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