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Democrats Weigh Farm Bill Threat

Senators Consider Letting Agriculture Programs Expire to Spur House Action

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow stressed the need to pass a farm bill, not an extension.

After passing a farm bill this summer, Senate Democrats could decide to allow agriculture programs to expire at the end of the month in an effort to spur House Republican leaders to pass a farm bill and work out differences between the chambers in the next few months.

"It's not about an extension. We need to pass the farm bill," Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

Democrats have also ramped up the rhetoric against House leaders.

"We're at a stage now where it's been a total failure ... of leadership in the House," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said after his party's weekly caucus lunch. "Just to walk away from this? And that's what they're doing. There is no bill that's come from the House. Nothing."

Reid called on the House to take up the Senate's bill, seemingly backing away from the position he took before recess, when he said he would be willing to move a standalone drought aid bill if the House took the Senate's language.

A top House Republican aide was "highly skeptical" that the Conference would be able to do anything on farm issues before the elections and unclear on what the House might do on the issue in the lame-duck session.

Democrats have been taking their cues on the issue from Stabenow, who has been helping lead the charge to pressure the House to pass its farm bill, which was cleared by the House Agriculture Committee in July.

The Senate passed its farm bill in June, but House GOP leaders have yet to consider the chamber's committee-approved measure because a fight over how much to cut from the food stamp program has prevented them from finding a majority for passage.

Both chambers have very few days left to work out a deal as lawmakers are looking to get back on the campaign trail ahead of the upcoming elections.

The House could leave town as soon as the end of the week, with the Senate likely to clear out soon after.

"We only need a couple [of days] in the House to get this done," Stabenow said.

"If the House acts now, we could quickly resolve our differences and pass a bill ... even if it's the last thing they do, we negotiate it over October and quickly pass it when we come back in November," Stabenow said, noting that discussions took place over the recess.

She said agriculture interests are also focused on a full bill rather than an extension.

When asked about the farm bill Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would prefer an extension to expiration, but he noted that not all Republicans agreed.

"I don't believe that we ought to let the current farm bill expire if we're unable at this point to pass a replacement," McConnell said. "So on that, I speak for myself. There are different points of view in our Conference."

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.), a member of the Agriculture Committee who voted for the Senate bill, agreed with McConnell.

"We need to have some policy in place," Thune said. "I think allowing it to expire would be a mistake, and I say that as somebody who voted for the farm bill."

"I would like to see a five-year farm bill," Thune continued. "But in the number of legislative days that are left, it's unlikely we probably get there. So if we could do something that would provide some disaster, some drought assistance to people who have been impacted by the drought this year, and do an extension of some time frame of the existing farm bill, that would probably be maybe the best solution we could hope for right now."

The House passed a drought aid package before the recess. The Senate never took up the measure because Democrats hoped to keep up the pressure on the long-term farm bill. The House aid bill was also less generous than aid provided in the Senate farm bill.

Asked about the drought aid measure, Reid said, "It would have to be a drought package that was at least as good as our farm bill, and it isn't."

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