Updated: 9:17 p.m.
Lawmakers, especially from rural districts and states, don’t want to go home empty-handed to their drought-plagued constituents at week’s end without making some effort to approve agriculture disaster aid.
But as of Wednesday, they were on track to do just that, given that Senate Democrats are reluctant to pass the pending $383 million House disaster bill that still needs to garner enough votes Thursday to even be sent to the Senate. Late Wednesday evening, the House Rules Committee announced it would pull the bill from the suspension calendar, a sure sign leaders did not have the two-thirds vote necessary to approve the measure that way. And if Congress fails to send any sort of legislation to the president’s desk, with about 80 percent of the country suffering from an historic drought, then it will be a blame-game free-for-all when Members return home for the month.
“In the aggregate, yes, we’ll get beat to death going home without having done something, but most of these guys on this floor don’t represent rural districts, and they’re not going to face anybody affected by this,” said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), a member of the Agriculture Committee.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who met with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the Capitol on Wednesday, has said he will consider a stand-alone drought relief package only if it is exactly like the provisions included in the bipartisan farm bill the Senate approved in June.
The House proposal, however, only addresses livestock disaster and tree assistance programs — two of the most pressing issues in current drought conditions. The Senate’s five-year extension — which was supported by 16 GOP Senators — is broader and includes measures to help fruit growers affected by frost and freezes, sweeping improvements to crop insurance and permanent funding for livestock disaster programs.
The House plan would offset the increased spending by cutting conservation programs dear to Democrats. A litany of farm groups and some Democrats released a joint statement Wednesday against the bill, while expressing support for both emergency aid to farmers and a long-term bill.
“If the House simply passed the five-year farm bill reported out of Committee on a bipartisan basis, this bill would not be necessary. While we understand that will not happen before the August recess, this bill potentially costs more than $600 million and would only provide relief to livestock producers a month or two earlier than a farm bill debated and passed in September,” wrote the groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation and 12 other prominent organizations. “Agriculture will already provide a minimum of $23 billion in deficit reduction by passing the farm bill. We do not need to provide additional deficit reduction in this package only a few months before we provide far more than agriculture’s ‘fair share.’”
The other groups included the American Soybean Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Barley Growers Association, National Corn Growers Association, National Farmers Union, National Milk Producers Federation, National Sunflower Association, United Fresh Produce Association, U.S. Canola Association, USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council and Western Growers.
Late Wednesday, the Senate showed no sign of flinching, and it was not clear that House GOP leaders would have the votes to approve their own measure, which faces a two-thirds threshold for passage. If the House were to change the offset structure of the bill, however, they could put increased pressure on the Senate to take up their bill.
Though a rarity during the past year and a half, recent Congresses have approved emergency aid bills without offsets, and House Republicans earlier this year agreed to an extension of the payroll tax cut that was not paid for.
To make matters more complicated, because the current drought is persistent, the costs of aid continues to increase every day, and according to sources, has increased even since the Senate passed its bill.
There are significant political points to be scored, particularly in close races across the Midwest, on the farm assistance issue.
Senate leaders have long felt as if they had the upper hand in the negotiations with the House on the bill, considering that the House gave up on trying to approve a one-year extension.
House sources gave no indication they intend to pass a clean aid bill without the controversial offsets, but if they were to do so, Democrats still may not go along for fear of losing leverage on the longer-term bill. The five-year extension likely will face opposition from House conservatives, especially without the drought aid sweetener.
When asked whether passing the disaster aid bill would make it more difficult to convince his conservative colleagues to back a long-term farm bill, Conaway demurred.
“Well, that kind of second-guessing doesn’t do us any good. We’re going to pass it tomorrow, if it doesn’t get the two-third votes, then we’ll see,” said the Texas Republican, who helped approve a five-year bill out of committee.
“But we’ve got to pass a five-year bill, we’ve got to find 218 votes whether they’re conservatives, liberals, or whatever in the House and that’s not easy under any circumstances,” Conaway said.
Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.