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Farm Bill Next Partisan Victim?

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas will have to navigate a tough field to move the farm bill.

House Republican leaders are facing a minefield in moving a farm bill this year, as fundamental policy disagreements on both sides of the aisle might render the agriculture overhaul even more difficult to pass than the transportation bill.

As has often been the case in the 112th Congress, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) faces an impasse in presenting a bill to his right flank — in this case particularly because the bulk of the farm bill funds a conservative abhorrence: food stamps.

If the House Agriculture Committee cuts the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program too deeply, however, Democrats will shun the bill, which leaves Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) a perhaps impossibly narrow path to passage.

Outside conservative groups are ready to mobilize against the bill.

Under the Dome, a contingent of tea party conservatives, referring to the legislation as a “food welfare bill,” are trying to stymie it before it ever gets considered, a move resembling the backlash against the House highway bill that never even got a floor vote.

“We’re trying to figure out how to keep this bill from coming to the floor altogether. It’ll divide the conservative movement from Republicans in such a deep way right before the election that it could be truly devastating,” an aide to a conservative Member said. “If leadership tries to move the food welfare bill onto the House floor, they’ll have tremendous and sustained problems from conservatives in and out of Washington.”

If they do not move on the bill, House leaders risk being boxed in by the Senate. That chamber passed a bipartisan farm bill last week, 64-35, and House inaction could help drive home Senate Democrats’ message that the House is the problem in Washington, D.C., dysfunction.

Recognizing all of this, leadership is approaching the deliberations with a cautious skepticism. The Agriculture Committee will mark up the bill July 11 and, depending on how that goes, leadership will decide whether to put the kibosh on floor consideration.

Still, even if the bill does get considered and passed, a conference committee would have little time to reconcile differences before the current authorization expires Sept. 30. Complicating matters, the House has just six legislative weeks scheduled from after the Independence Day recess until Sept. 30, when funding for the current fiscal year also expires. That leaves little room for a farm bill fight if, as it did last year, a spending clash takes Congress to the brink.

“It’s hard to see a path forward for a conference report to be completed before the election,” a GOP leadership aide said.

That leaves a short-term extension a distinct possibility, punting the issue into the next Congress.

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