House GOP leaders' plan to strip food stamps from the farm bill ran into trouble Tuesday when it failed to win over conservative groups who helped tank the measure three weeks ago.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has been quietly pushing to separate food stamps from the farm provisions for two weeks in an effort to find 218 Republican votes.
A House GOP leadership aide said Tuesday that Republican leaders had decided to drop food stamps and proceed with a farm-only portion of the bill this week. The new bill would include a repeal of the 1949 law that requires the passage or extension of a farm bill as a carrot to conservatives. The nutrition portion of the bill, the aide said, would be dealt with later. But GOP leaders have yet to announce an official way forward as they struggle to line up the votes.
Needham, along with 20 other conservative group leaders, signed an open letter to Speaker John A. Boehner that applauded the Republican leader for splitting the bill but implored him to bring the legislation to the floor under an open rule.
"The purpose of splitting the agriculture and nutrition pieces was to change the political dynamics that conspire to prevent true reform," read the letter, which was signed by notable conservatives including Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, Chris Chocola of Club for Growth and Ryan Alexander of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "If the House pushes through agriculture-only language taken directly from the combined bill that failed on the floor last month without amendment, it will not only fail to change those dynamics, it will actively preserve them."
Opposition from groups such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth helped sink the measure 195-234.
But it also failed because of a lack of Democratic support. Only 24 Democrats voted for the farm bill after Republicans adopted a number of amendments unpalatable to the other side, most notably one from Steve Southerland II, R-Fla., backed by Cantor that authorized state pilot programs creating work requirements for able-bodied adult recipients of food stamps.
Democrats reacted with fury over the plan to drop food stamps from the farm bill, although leadership had not yet mounted a counter-whip operation to keep its members in line. Democrats will have to weigh the possible fruits of a conference with a Senate bill that has a more robust food stamp program.
Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, said nobody consulted him about the move.
"We're heading into uncharted water here," Peterson said Tuesday. "Nobody has talked to me at all except some Republicans who do not like what their leadership [is doing]. They do not want this split thing either."
Peterson said he thought the best way forward for farm bill passage was not to proceed with a partisan bill but to take away the Southerland amendment and give the farm bill another vote.
"I want them to take the Southerland amendment out and put the bill back on the floor," Peterson said. "That's what I told them ... before they had the vote, I told them that."
"They're the ones that screwed this up, not me," Peterson added. "I had the votes until they put those amendments up."
Republican aides say if they can't find the votes for a split bill, the conference has two options: Do nothing or try to hash out the differences with Democrats.
To avoid that, they are relentlessly whipping the vote.
As evidence of that whip operation, House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas was quoted as recently as Monday saying he opposed splitting the bill. By Tuesday morning, however, with the writing seemingly on the wall, Lucas said he was open to the idea.
“I’m willing to do what it takes to get a farm bill done,” Lucas said as he exited a Republican Conference meeting Tuesday morning. “If that means doing it unconventionally, maybe we've got to give it a try.”
Asked whether it was fair to say he supports splitting the farm bill, the Oklahoma Republican replied: “It’s fair to say that Chairman Lucas is at a point where he has got to look outside the box, and splitting the farm bill is certainly outside the traditional box.”
Rules Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas was coy about when his panel might take up the farm bill.
"The success of a rain dance has a lot to do with timing," he said.
But Peterson predicts that Republicans will soon have to face the reality that they do not have enough Republican support for passage.
"They're whipping right now, and my guess is in a few days they'll figure out they don't have the votes and then we might get back to reality," Peterson said.
"Hopefully," he added.