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Farm Bill Slog Mirrors Transportation Fight

The farm bill fiasco continues as the August recess approaches, the devastation from drought grows deeper and the House continues to play games, dimming hopes for a bipartisan compromise along the lines of the Senate bill.

The issues have their own importance and dynamics, but the fandango here also signals a significant difference in the House and Senate that could have real reverberations next year and beyond.

First, the fundamentals: The farm program runs out Sept. 30. It needs reauthorization but clearly needs serious revamping as well, especially of the outmoded and costly direct payments to farmers.

The Senate made a serious bipartisan stab at reform, which was not exactly revolutionary, (the money from the direct payments is largely channeled back into crop supports) but still commendable given farm interests and the need to find a majority.

The House Agriculture Committee had similar bipartisan support for its bill, which took a somewhat different tack in terms of which commodities got rewarded and which got punished. But the grounds for a conference report to resolve the differences were there until the House showed the complications of trying to do anything these days that is not highly ideological and purely partisan.

The problems started to cascade when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor
(R-Va.) rebuffed Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and pulled the bill from the floor, delaying it until well after the Independence Day recess. In the meantime, the problems for crops and livestock, and for farmers unprotected from drought losses, mounted, and the time for action grew shorter and shorter.

So why not act now? The big problem is that the House simply cannot muster 218 votes for any substantive farm bill.

A large swath of Republicans want to make deep cuts in the food stamp program, accounting for $16 billion in cuts of the overall $35 billion in cuts over 10 years that was reported out of the House Ag Committee.

For urban Democrats, that was far too much to embrace, especially with the weak economy and more demand on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from families having trouble making ends meet.

But for tea party Republicans, it was not enough they are demanding much deeper SNAP cuts.

Cantor has little interest in pushing a bill that is opposed by any significant group of conservatives, and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has little interest in pushing a bill that could make up for the loss of those conservative votes by attracting more Democrats.

The fallback plan passing a one-year extension of the current program, which would mean leaving intact both the direct payments and the food stamp status quo could attract Democratic support only if it were the pretext to send the farm bill to conference, where both chambers could work on a compromise from the Senate-passed bill, something akin to what was done on the transportation bill earlier this year.

That bill was the precursor of this pattern. As the peak construction season approached, the Senate found a bipartisan sweet spot, passing a bill with 74 votes. It had two unlikely key partners, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who ignored the broader ideological gulf between them and found common ground.

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