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Partisan farm bill vote leaves future uncertain

The future of federal farm programs is uncertain, at best, after a sharply divided House on Thursday passed a stripped-down farm bill on its second try.

The 216-208 vote mostly was along party lines, a rarity for farm bills, with all but 12 Republicans voting for it and all Democrats opposed after the GOP-controlled House removed funding for food stamps and other programs to feed the country's poor.

Farm groups worried that House-Senate negotiations, known as a conference, will not be able to work out a compromise without the food stamp portion of the bill.

"We are concerned that without a workable nutrition title, it will prove to be nearly impossible to adopt a bill that can be successfully conferenced with the Senate's version, approved by both the House and Senate and signed by the president," Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Papp said.

The White House said President Barack Obama would veto the House bill if it reaches his desk.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., criticized the House bill, but she said she would go to conference with the House.

"The bill passed by the House today is not a real farm bill and is an insult to rural America, which is why it's strongly opposed by more than 500 farm, food and conservation groups," Stabenow said.

"We will go to conference with the bipartisan, comprehensive farm bill that was passed in the Senate that not only reforms programs, supports families in need and creates agriculture jobs, but also saves billions more than the extremely flawed House bill," she said.

House leaders split the farm bill Thursday, three weeks after a version that included food stamps failed, embarrassing Republican leaders.

Republicans say the bill could go to negotiations with the Senate, although they promised to continue to work on finding a nutrition bill that can pass.

The Democrat-controlled Senate easily passed its version of the farm bill, including nutrition program funding.

While many farm provisions in the two bills are the same, senators cut just $4 billion from food stamps over 10 years while the bill representatives defeated last month would have cut $20 billion. Many Republicans would like to cut even more, while Democrats generally want no cuts.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., began work on the farm bill four years ago when he was Agriculture Committee chairman, but he said he had to vote against the GOP bill Thursday.

"I'm sorry I have to do that," Peterson said.

More than 500 farm, conservation and other groups sent letters to the U.S. House asking that the nutrition provisions remain in the farm bill. Peterson said House Republicans ignored them.

Nutrition and farm programs have been in the same bill since 1977 in an effort to get support from both urban and rural lawmakers.

"It violates a decades-old principle that united urban and rural interests together feeding hungry people," said Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn.

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said he strongly opposed the move "because it increases hunger in America."

Farm bills generally are bipartisan efforts, but that ended this year.

"Tea party Republicans have yet again chosen to push a partisan, broken bill to nowhere," said Rep. Tim Walz, a southern Minnesota Democrat.

Lack of new farm policy would keep existing laws on the books, which would cost more than the proposed bill. It also would mean farmers would continue to work under what many call outdated programs instead of a newly written crop insurance provision.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., pledged to keep working on funding food stamps.

"The committee will work hard to achieve a consensus on a nutrition bill," Lucas said, although he admitted that whatever his committee draws up probably will not satisfy the extremes from both political parties.

The combined farm-nutrition bill failed June 20 after Republicans voted on an amendment that Democrats claimed would make it more difficult for some Americans to get food stamps. Several Democrats voted against the bill last month because of the amendment, which defeated it.

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., said he voted against the bill because it did not make enough changes in farm policy.

"This bill, like the one rejected last month, failed to include the type of reform needed to make our agriculture policies more fiscally responsible and responsive to the needs of farmers," Kind said. "I attempted to include those reforms in this new bill, but was shut out from the process by a House majority more interested in appeasing big agribusiness than in protecting taxpayers and family farmers."

Kind also complained about taking food stamps and other nutrition provisions out of the bill.

Agweek contributor Jerry Hagstrom provided information for this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.