House Republican leaders are counting on the August heat to help them pass a farm bill when Congress returns from recess in September — and not just the kind causing the record drought parching 80 percent of the country.
They are hoping that Members headed home for the district work period, particularly in drought-affected states, will hear from angry constituents all month, demanding that Congress do its job.
At a press conference last week, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) gave a frank assessment of the woes leadership has faced, not just coming up short on an Agriculture Committee-approved five-year farm bill but also failing to move a one-year extension of current law.
“The House is pretty well divided. You’ve got the left concerned about reductions in the food stamp program. You’ve got the right who don’t think the cuts go far enough,” Boehner said. “Frankly, I haven’t seen 218 votes in the middle to pass a farm bill.”
Indeed, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has so far been unable to wrangle the votes necessary to pass the bill, although the chamber narrowly approved a temporary extension of some emergency drought relief for livestock producers Thursday.
At a Christian Science Monitor breakfast last week, McCarthy conceded that large bills are difficult to move in this Congress. But he said giving the farm bill a chance to sit will allow Members time to become better acquainted with its policies. He said his goal is still to pass it before the current authorization expires on Sept. 30.
“I believe we will get the farm bill done,” he said. “The farm bill does not expire until the end of September. When we come back, we’ll find a way to move it into conference.”
The odds, however, are still stacked squarely against that, and the longer the bill lingers and the closer the elections get, the less it seems Members like it.
Lawmakers on both sides are well-entrenched against it, and leadership is scared to bring the measure to the floor because of conservatives’ eagerness to bring up poison-pill amendments — cutting more funding from food stamps, for instance — which could hurt the party in November.
As a result, frustrated Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas gave an impassioned floor speech Thursday urging Members to speak with their constituents during the break.
“Go home and see your constituents for the next five weeks. ... Go and build the momentum to come back and do the farm bill,” the Oklahoma Republican said. “Let’s go home and prepare for a farm bill debate when we come back. But most importantly, let’s just go home.”
Later, Lucas pointed to the drought assistance vote as proof that Congress “can do something.”
“This doesn’t help or hurt the overall process, but it does say that we can create a majority,” he said.
The Senate has refused to take up the measure, with Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) calling on the House to instead bring the full farm bill to the floor.
Back in Members’ districts, House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson said, there is sure to be pressure on Republicans to come to an agreement on the bill and bring it up in September.
“A lot of them are going to come back with religion, if you will,” the Minnesota Democrat said. “A lot of these freshmen have not been around here long enough to know what they’re facing when they go home. They have no good answer to give their constituents about why they didn’t do this, and it’s going to make a very uncomfortable situation for them. I think some of leadership has no idea what they’re going to be facing.”
In fact, Peterson said, the leaders of the Agriculture committees are so confident that something will change over recess that they are working to hash out a compromise bill during August so they are prepared to move swiftly when lawmakers return.
“We’re working with the Senate to try to come up with a way to get this bill settled over August,” Peterson said. “What I think is going to happen is they’re going to want to move this as soon as we get back, and we have to be ready. If we’re ready, we can move this in a couple of days.”
But even if that doesn’t happen, some in the Senate are hoping that the farm bill could at least be brought up in the lame-duck session, and because it saves more than $20 billion, it could be used to offset other costly legislation.
That would, of course, necessitate a short-term extension of the farm bill, or even a lapse, if an extension proves impossible.