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Farm Bill Negotiations to Continue Into September As Expiration Looms

Sen. Jeff Flake in a colloquy before lawmakers adjourned for their August recess helped Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow lay down her markers for shaping a final farm bill, or, failing that, another extension of the 2008 farm bill, by questioning continued payments for cotton farmers.

Since 2011, Stabenow, D-Mich., and House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., have persisted in trying to deliver a final farm bill. They’ve gotten farther this year than in the past toward that goal, but they will enter September with no guarantee of success and only nine legislative days in the House before the expiration of the current farm bill extension on Sept. 30

The path to a conference committee on the Senate bill (S 954) and the House agriculture-only bill may be complicated if House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., brings a revised farm bill nutrition title to the floor that cuts up to $40 billion over 10 years from the nation’s largest domestic food aid program.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters she is not confident about the farm bill’s future if Republicans offer the new nutrition bill.

“To put their members on record as supporting $40 billion in cuts, that really makes the path back the harder one for the farm bill,” Pelosi, D-Calif., said. “What comes back would have to have strong bipartisan support, and can they produce any votes on their side that doesn’t cut [so much]?”

Even Stabenow, who excels in projecting optimism whenever she discusses the farm bill, called the possible nutrition bill “one more road block.” She said the possible new nutrition bill could “put us in a situation where it’s going to make it harder to get a farm bill done.”

But she pushed ahead with her talk on the floor with Flake, to which she had agreed in order to win support last month for a unanimous consent to send the House a request to go to conference committee.

Flake, R-Ariz., who earned a reputation in the House as a hawk bent on reducing federal spending, called for a permanent end of an annual $5 billion a year in direct payments to farmers and land owners. He said provisions in the House-passed agriculture-only farm bill would make $823 million in direct payments to cotton farmers for two years after the measure ends such payments for other crops.

Stabenow was happy to oblige, since she has voiced displeasure over the House provisions to continue cotton payments at a reduced level for fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015. Stabenow promised Flake she would work to eliminate the payments. The colloquy was Stabenow’s messaging to Lucas, who includes 70 percent of direct payments to cotton growers in 2014 and 60 percent of direct payments in 2015 to help them transition from existing programs to a new one designed to satisfy a 2010 trade ruling Brazil won against the United States.

Stabenow and Lucas say they hope to iron out such differences between the Senate bill and the agriculture-only bill through informal talks during the August recess. The goal, they said, is to get as many issues resolved as possible by September so they’ll be ready for a likely formal conference committee.

“This pre-conference process that we’re now engaged in, of doing the homework ... that can’t be done in hours or days,” Lucas told the Agribusiness Club on Thursday.

The Senate officially named its 12 conferees on Friday and the House is expected to name negotiators in September.

In the House, Cantor delayed a decision about going to conference until he offers a revised farm bill nutrition title that could cut up to $40 billion over 10 years in spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The larger savings would come primarily by limiting states’ ability to issue work waivers for unemployed childless adults and others. The savings would be nearly double the $20.5 billion in cuts over 10 years in the original House Agriculture Committee-passed bill (HR 1947). The Senate bill proposes $4 billion in SNAP cuts over 10 years.

The House rejected the committee bill in June, largely because of disagreements on SNAP. Cantor removed the nutrition title and the House along party lines approved an agriculture-only farm bill.

Democrats protested the proposed $20.5 billion savings as too large and say the news that Republicans are seeking larger reductions may doom the bill.

Pelosi said the new nutrition proposal — which has not been written — makes the original committee bill less objectionable from the view of her caucus.

“Even with that bill as horrible as it was, at least it was a path to the conference table,” she said.

Lucas acknowledged that the difficulty of bridging the gap on nutrition cuts will only grow more challenging if the House moves forward with $40 billion in reductions. But with some effort, he said it could be done.

“This is one of those areas where you need guidance from on high,” Lucas said, alluding to congressional leaders and the Obama administration. “That’s not passing the buck. That’s just saying it’s a tough bridge to cross without some help in achieving consensus.”

Emma Dumain and Emily Ethridge contributed to this report.

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