Farm bill remains in limbo as Congress weighs options

The defeat of the farm bill in the House last week forced Republican leaders to reassess the best way to move forward, having only a handful of largely unpopular choices.

The House could vote on the version approved by the House Agriculture Committee in May or strip out some of the controversial food stamp amendments. Lawmakers could take up the bill that passed in the full Senate this month or simply start negotiating with the Senate in conference to craft a final law. These options would further diminish the chamber's depleted negotiating leverage.

Analysts and lobbyists say the most likely outcome will be an extension of the current farm law, despite steadfast opposition from top leaders in the Senate.

"We really want to see a farm bill done this year and have the long-term policy in place, but it's not easy to see how (Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio) is going to get there," said Ferd Hoefner, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents small and medium-sized family farms. "The most likely of the options is … we are going to do an extension."

The arduous process of crafting a five-year, $500 billion farm policy gained momentum early last week as the House, after failing to even bring up the bill for a vote last year, announced it would try to pass the measure. The legislation was supported by Boehner, who had been reluctant to support prior incarnations of the bill.

With little warning, the House bill was soundly defeated, 195-234, as a split among Republicans and opposition by Democrats over massive cuts to the country's food stamp program siphoned off votes. The outcome left farm groups in a state of shock while dealing a major blow to Boehner, who may have lost his best chance to pass a farm bill.

"When they get knocked back like that, it does take a lot of wind out the sails of the speaker, and it's hard for them to corral their members again," said Chad Hart, an associate professor of economics at Iowa State University.

The Senate bill proposed annual cuts of $400 million to food stamps, which are used by about 48 million Americans. The House bill had targeted $2 billion, or about 3% of annual spending for the program. Conservative Republicans have pushed for steeper cuts. Democrats opposed the House reduction because they feared it would force millions of the country's poor off food stamps.

Lobbyists and analysts following the farm bill process said Boehner's lack of support from his own party – 62 GOP members joined 172 Democrats in voting against the legislation last week — does not bode well for the measure going forward. If leaders from both chambers are able to draft a farm bill that the House votes on again, the cuts to food stamps aren't likely to be as sharp, causing even more Republicans to withdraw their support.

"The word is there is a lot of dissension, uncertainty and distrust," said Pat Westhoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute, a think-tank at the University of Missouri. "People didn't like the way that process happened and aren't terribly confident that they want to engage in the process going forward."

As a result, the path of least resistance would be to extend the farm bill again. At the end of last year, Congress extended the 2008 farm bill through Sept. 30.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., ratcheted up the pressure on the House after he said Monday his chamber would not pass another farm bill extension this year. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the head of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, have joined the chorus of lawmakers opposed to a short-term fix.

"I don't know how else you're going to keep the pressure on the House to get something done, and I think Stabenow, her position, is leverage in that direction," said Grassley, who said he hasn't given up on the House passing a bill. "The House had better figure out a way of getting a farm bill to conference, so we can get a bill to the president."

The bill covers everything from farm programs to trade and conservation. Without a new law or an extension, a 1949 law would automatically go into effect, curbing plantings and forcing the government to increase subsidy payments by tens of billions of dollars. Dairy programs would be among the first to take a hit. Commodity prices paid to farmers would nearly double, and consumers would pay more for milk. Wheat and other commodities would be impacted soon after.

Farm groups have expressed growing frustration over the inability of Congress to complete a farm bill. Kevin Scott, a farmer from Valley Springs, S.D., said he was optimistic Congress would reach a deal on the farm bill before the 1949 law went into effect. Regardless of the outcome, he said, he would not let the uncertainty coming from Washington change the way he runs his 2,300-acre corn and soybean farm.

"The farm bill is just a small part of what we do. There will still be buyers. Cattle, hogs and chickens, they all have to eat soybeans or corn," Scott said. "The market will go on, and we'll be fine. But it would be nice if our legislative leadership recognized that some of the business decisions we make are tied to what happens in the farm programs."

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