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John McCain Throws ‘Sequester’ Wrench Into Farm Bill

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Senate Agriculture ranking member Pat Roberts and Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow admitted in a press conference today that navigating the farm bill through the amendment jungle on the Senate floor will not be easy.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) today filed an amendment on the looming across-the-board defense cuts on behalf of Armed Services Committee Republicans, and the proposal could prove to be the first test on a sweeping farm bill scheduled to hit the floor this week.

The McCain amendment, which would require Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to file a detailed report by Aug. 15 on the security effects of the nearly $500 billion defense sequester, was discussed at length by the entire Senate GOP Conference at a weekly steering committee lunch this afternoon.

“Congress needs an official, detailed assessment from the Department on the serious damage to military readiness and the increased risk to our military operations in Afghanistan which would result if sequestration is allowed to occur due to the inability of the Administration and Congress to enact an alternative deficit reduction plan,” McCain said in a statement. “We cannot wait until after the election to act.” The sequester was triggered by the failure of the super committee to reach a deficit reduction deal. As a result, $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts to defense and domestic programs are set to begin taking effect in January.

Though the push to reverse the defense part of the sequester is especially popular among Republicans, the move to attach the McCain measure to a delicately negotiated, $969 billion bipartisan farm bill could be just the first of many to threaten final passage.

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and ranking member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) worked aggressively to pass the bill out of their committee, appending dozens of amendments to the panel’s final product and approving the five-year authorization bill on a 16-5 vote.

But the amendment jungle on the Senate floor is much trickier. In a press conference today, Stabenow and Roberts admitted the process will not be easy. They re-emphasized their open-door policy for Members and their tempered confidence the legislation can pass quickly. They also know, however, that the fate of their bill may depend in part on Senate leaders who often have tried to score political points this Congress at the expense of legislating.

“In regard to Sen. McCain’s amendment, I think it has merit. I would prefer it that all nongermane amendments to agriculture be considered in a separate venue, but then again I know that’s not possible,” Roberts said. “So we are opening the door, like Bob Barker, ‘Come on down.’ Talk to us. We will try to accommodate anybody and everybody on any section of the bill to try to improve it. The chairwoman has worked diligently in that regard.”

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