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Conferencing Farm Bill Won't Be Easy

Challenges exist in conferencing farm bill differences between House and Senate.

Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said that she had been planning that the House and Senate could immediately go to conference committee during the August recess. But now that the House wants to wait until a nutrition title is brought up possibly in early September, that path forward is less clear.

Time is ticking away before the Sept. 30 farm bill expiration, clear parameters are not established to begin conferencing, and significant differences still exist between the House and Senate versions as well as within each chamber.

Informal discussions between agricultural leaders have started and will continue, Stabenow said, including a meeting of Senate and House ag committee leaders and their staffs the evening of July 31. But they can't have serious discussions without the full parameters in front of them, most notably the nutrition title.  

"We will not be able to go as far as I would like or expected to go in pre-conferencing," Stabenow said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Thursday evening named conferees to reconcile differences in farm bill.

For Democrats it includes Stabenow, Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Max Baucus, D-Mont., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Michael Bennet, D- Colo. For Republicans it includes Ag Committee ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., John Boozman, R-Ark., and John Hoeven, R-N.D.

Within the Senate conferees, the nutrition title differences are the least of their worries. Previous Chairman Roberts has been outspoken against the way the commodity title is set up and the way southern commodities are offered preferentially and potentially market-distorting.

Stabenow said House leadership is not expected to name conferees until it decides on a nutrition title.

"At this point, the path forward is certainly less clear," Stabenow said. She said conversations with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, indicate he's willing to see the farm bill through, however, Cantor is playing "political gamesmanship that is blocking us from getting this done," Stabnow claimed.

The House is expected to move forward on a nutrition-only bill which cuts $40 billion over 10 years. This is nearly double the $20.5 billion first proposed by the House and much higher than $4 billion proposed in the Senate version.

During a luncheon with the Agribusiness Club Aug. 1, House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., admitted that the nutrition spending level differences between the House and Senate may be difficult to conference and may be a "tough bridge to cross to achieve consensus."

"Whether it’s 40 matching with up with 4 or 20.5 matching up with 4 – that’s a huge difference," he said. 

House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) was quick to criticize the $40 billion in cuts. Peterson, who had been supportive of the $20.5 billion in the initial House proposal by cutting categorical eligibility, said the additional $20 billion in nutrition cuts, "on top of the poison pill amendments" that brought down the bill in June "effectively kills any hopes of passing a five-year farm bill this year."

The House is in session for only nine days in September and the Senate returns for five weeks of work when it comes back the first week in September. "This is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off," Stabenow said.

She shared that it will be difficult to get any kind of extension through the chambers, especially continuing direct payments which members have agreed need to be ended, but are an important piece of helping fund future commodity programs.

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