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Jobless Benefits, Farm Bill Hit Snags

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Ayotte is pushing to eliminate a child tax credit for children of undocumented immigrants to pay for the unemployment extension and to undo a reduction in military retirement benefits in the budget agreement.

“The speaker has been clear that supply management will not be in the final farm bill,” one House GOP leadership aide said of a contentious provision to regulate the production and price of milk in the United States. That Senate provision is also championed by House Agriculture ranking Democrat Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota. Peterson said when the conference first convened that he would get the votes to “bulldoze” dairy language favored by Boehner out of any deal.

“The speaker used to be on the Ag Committee, the once-powerful House Ag Committee, and was a very active participant. He is not a big supporter of the current dairy programs, so I think he has some strong feelings about that,” said Senate conferee Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who added, “I’ve not talked to John.”

Roberts is a former chairman of the House Agriculture panel. He was trumped for ranking member on the Senate panel in this Congress by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.

Senators outside the top four are venting their frustration about the package they think may emerge, with Iowa Republican Charles E. Grassley criticizing possible removal of an amendment he sponsored that also appeared in the House bill regarding the definition of “actively engaged” farming.

“All this debate between the two houses has been about how much to cut out of food stamps,” Grassley said. “So, they’re going to cut $8 billion from food stamps and still give hundreds of millions of dollars to millionaire farmers, and it just doesn’t seem equal.”

Cochran’s role has been a boon for a number of Southern interests, including maintaining a controversial Agriculture Department catfish inspection program from the last farm law that critics call duplicative.

“I don’t know where it fits in the laundry list of things — dairy, food stamps, everything else — but it apparently has become a significant issue,” Roberts said of the catfish debate.

Sen. John McCain, who filed an amendment to the Senate farm bill to kill the catfish program along with New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, pressed for an open conference vote on the program. The Arizona Republican noted that while he and Shaheen were blocked from a vote, the House bill contained the provision.

“The need to repeal the catfish program far outweighs whatever parochial reasons exist to prop up a small number of domestic catfish farmers,” McCain wrote in a letter to Cochran and Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. “If Farm Bill conferees are denied the opportunity to vote against this reckless and wasteful catfish program, please be assured that I will work with my colleagues in the House and Senate to legislatively terminate it at every opportunity.”

Lucas declined to categorize any sort of agreement about handling of amendments like the catfish one at an open conference, saying such talk would be premature.

“Before you can have such a meeting, there are a number of issues that have to be sorted out, and I don’t know that we’re quite at that point yet, but we work every day, all day long, trying to make progress,” he said. “When we’re ready to have a public conference, we’ll talk about what’s on the agenda.”

Emma Dumain and Meredith Shiner contributed to this report.

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