By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
OMAHA (DTN) -- The House Agriculture Committee will face floor fights on a number of issues from both parties when the farm bill is taken up, but should be able to hold together its version of the bill for eventual negotiations with the Senate later this summer, ranking member Collin Peterson said Friday.
Peterson, a Democrat from Minnesota, also expressed confidence the farm bill could be done before the August recess if both versions are able to get past their respective floor debates in the coming weeks. Peterson said his conversations with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., suggest the legislation will be debated in mid-June. Floor debate begins on the Senate bill Monday afternoon.
"Having said that, we have challenges facing us when we get to the floor," Peterson said.
Getting to the floor could be the hard part. Partisan agendas could keep the farm bill on the backburner. Heritage Action, an arm of the Heritage Foundation, wrote House leaders on Thursday, warning them not to bring up the farm bill or legislation from the Senate dealing with Internet sales taxes. Heritage Action said debating such bills would take away from the focus now on the Obama administration over political controversies such as the IRS and Benghazi.
"Legislation such as the Internet sales tax or the FARM Act which contains nearly $800 billion in food stamp spending, would give the press a reason to shift their attention away from the failures of the Obama administration, to write another 'circular firing squad' article," Heritage Action wrote House leaders.
With a 36-10 vote, the House Agriculture Committee had a successful markup on Wednesday by largely keeping the bill intact with the cuts and program changes crafted by Lucas and Peterson. The vast majority of the bill was comparable to the bill the committee passed last summer that GOP leaders declined to bring to the floor due, at least in part, to the presidential election. Peterson noted 13 of 21 Democrats on the committee voted for the bill, "which was better than I thought." Peterson said it showed there is ability to get Democratic votes despite $20.5 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
In the coming weeks, Peterson said he, Lucas and others will be talking with House leaders about how to manage the floor debate. Peterson said without restrictions on amendments, the floor debate will become too unwieldy to manage.
Peterson still sees significant battles on the floor, starting with nutrition programs and cuts.
"A lot of our folks on my side think not one penny can be cut out of nutrition," Peterson said. "That's a ridiculous point of view."
The key debate will still center on the level of cuts to SNAP. House leaders, notably Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., have championed converting SNAP into block grant money for states with projected savings of $130 billion over 10 years, or more. Republicans have voted to back that route past two years in supporting Ryan's budget plans.
Peterson said he and Lucas sought a middle ground by crafting language to eliminate broad-based categorical eligibility rules for SNAP. Forty-three states use such provisions, which have led to states creating a range of standards for enrolling people in SNAP. Some states only enroll people earning 30% above the federal poverty level while other states go to 100% higher than the poverty level. Peterson sees that state-to-state variance as a problem, though most Democrats, by and large, support the rules that are often simply called "cat-el."
Other floor challenges in the House will come against Peterson's proposed dairy program, which also is in the Senate bill. Still, the dairy issue will be contentious. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, last year called it a "Soviet-style" program because of the supply-management language. Another floor debate likely will come in sugar policy as well.
"It's not going to be easy, but we think we can hold things together," Peterson said.
The battle over requiring farmers to meet conservation compliance standards for soil erosion and wetlands preservation also will likely be argued on the floor. Language in the Senate bill would tie compliance to eligibility for crop-insurance premium subsidies, but Lucas opposes that idea.
"There will be an amendment on this on the floor," Peterson said. "It will be a tough fight."
In 2008, then-chairman Peterson and others were concerned they could be outflanked by a left-right coalition seeking more cuts to farm programs. Moreover, there was the threat of a veto from President George W. Bush. But Peterson not only had backing of now-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., but the committee put together its own in-house shop to whip up support for the bill on the floor. The 2008 farm bill ended up with a veto-proof 317 votes. While the Obama administration wants a farm bill, Peterson said he has talked to Lucas about reviving the in-house whipping operation. Strategy sessions are already planned to deal with dairy and sugar. "We don't have to do what we did in '08 because at least we don't have to fight the administration," Peterson said.
Higher SNAP cuts could help the bill through the House. Despite the expected House fights, Peterson also reiterated that "at the end of the day, this bill's going to be written in conference. The key is getting it that far. He also thinks the Senate will be unwilling to accept the level of nutrition savings offered by the House.
"There are certain things that are required to get the bill passed over here that aren't going to fly in the Senate," he said. "But we have to get that far before we can sort all of this out."
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., also made that same point in a press call Thursday.
"Well, first of all, I absolutely reject the level of cuts and the way this is done in the House," Stabenow told reporters. "They eliminate something called categorical eligibility, which we've now voted down either two or three times on the Senate floor on a bipartisan basis. It came up in committee this week, it was voted down on a bipartisan basis. So that policy does not have support in the U.S. Senate. I won't support it in conference, and so we will look for ways that we can continue to provide savings by tackling abuse, or misuse."
Chris Clayton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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