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Crop Insurance Fix Likely Coming Down the Road

Cornyn says senators working to address crop insurance concerns. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

   

Updated 5:07 p.m. | Farm-state lawmakers have been assured by leaders that a provision in the bipartisan budget deal that would trim the federal crop insurance subsidy program will be replaced down the road, Senate Republican Caucus Chairman John Thune confirmed Wednesday afternoon.  

"There's an understanding that we will try and find a different offset. In the House, I think this thing is now pretty well put together, pretty well baked," said Thune, also chair of the Congressional Farmer Cooperative Caucus. "So, I think what they send us is what we'll vote on. But we do have another opportunity coming up, with the omnibus bill, to find another offset."  

Earlier Wednesday, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn told CQ Roll Call he doubted a final resolution to a crop insurance issue could be secured before the chamber moves toward votes on a long-term budget deal.  

The provision to cut crop insurance subsidies created a stir among farm-state lawmakers, some of whom had signaled they could vote against the two-year budget and debt limit pact without assurances of a fix.  

Asked if he earlier in the day if he was concerned the issue could trip up the deal,  Cornyn replied, “No, not really.” The Treasury Department has said the deal must be signed into law by Nov. 3 to avoid a debt default. The congressional leadership and the White House worked out a deal to provide budget certainty for two years, as well as suspend the debt limit into 2017, unless concerns were addressed about crop insurance cutbacks.  

House Agriculture Chairman K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and ranking Democrat Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota had been gathering signatures on a letter to express opposition to the bipartisan agreement.  As of Wednesday morning, no letter had been sent, according to an Agriculture Committee aide.  

"The White House is the problem," Conaway told reporters. "I'm told that this came up as a result of the White House's initiative, and they're the ones that have to give me assurance it will be fixed, and I'm not sure that's on the table."  

Conaway told reporters the proposed change would hurt farmers.  

"Each farm bill is in effect a contract with production agriculture. You don't know all of the compromises that were made, and positions given up in order to get the assurance that is in the ... '14 farm bill that any changes to crop insurance would be deficit neutral," Conaway said. "That was a big deal."  

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, a farmer in his own right, said the changes could prove more costly in the event of disasters.  

"If you want farmers to manage their risk, it's going to be hurt," the Iowa Republican said. "If farmers don't buy crop insurance and contribute to it, then you're going to go back to pre-crop insurance, and instead of having the taxpayers subsidize 50 percent of it, they'll be subsidizing 100 percent of it, because we always had disaster relief if you had a natural disaster, just like you do for hurricanes or earthquakes."  

"You're saving the taxpayers a lot of money by having farmers buy insurance," Grassley said.  

On Wednesday, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., called the provision “very troubling."  

“I’ve been talking to a lot of people about how we can address the concerns of the industry that’s responsible for putting this product on the market,” she said. “They have deep concerns, and as a result, we have concerns. We’re working.”  

Asked if this can be fixed in the next few days, Heitkamp replied, "I don't know."  

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., called the provision "very damaging for agriculture."  

"It's not a small thing. It's not a minor thing, and the consequences can be dramatic, particularly at a time in which many parts of the country — including Kansas — have had significant and serious drought," Moran told CQ Roll Call. "I'm not sure where this issue came from, but I would say that it's surprising that it appears with no knowledge on the part of people who are responsible for crop insurance issues."  

Tamar Hallerman contributed to this report.  Related: Corralling the Votes for Budget Deal Defense Hawks Fine With Boost in War Account See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.