WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of senators and representatives, including three from Minnesota, pledged Wednesday to agree to a five-year farm bill that includes protection for farmers and funding for the supplemental nutrition program better known as food stamps.
The farm bill conference committee must craft a single bill from disparate bills passed in the Senate and House and get the approval of both chambers by year’s end. Otherwise, the current farm bill must be extended or agriculture policy will revert to 1949 law that could play havoc with food and dairy prices.
“The American people are tired of people standing in opposite corners of the boxing ring, swinging punches,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told her colleagues during the conference committee’s first meeting.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking minority member of the House Agriculture Committee, told a packed meeting room that “if the conference committee is left alone and allowed to do our work, we’ll be able to find some middle ground and finish the farm bill.”
In an interview after the meeting, Peterson said he said he was referring to meddling by House Republican leaders, specifically House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.
“Cantor messed with us and blew this up in June,” Peterson said of an earlier version of the farm bill that failed to win approval in the House despite overwhelming support of Republicans on the agriculture committee.
The House went on to approve separate agriculture and nutrition bills with virtually no Democratic votes. The nutrition bill would cut $40 billion from food stamps over 10 years.
On Wednesday, Peterson called on conference committee members to make compromises.
Another committee member, Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said a “unified bill” could “bring back some faith from the American people.”
The committee has not scheduled its next meeting. But participants and observers agree that a lot of unification must take place in a matter of weeks, especially around food stamps.
Klobuchar, Peterson and Walz favor significantly lower cuts to food stamps than the $40 billion the House approved. Klobuchar voted for a bipartisan Senate farm bill that trimmed food stamps by just $4 billion over 10 years. On Wednesday she said this is not the time for “deep cuts” in the program.
In the House, Peterson and Walz voted for the ag committee-blessed farm bill, which included $20 billion in food stamp cuts over 10 years. Minnesota Republican Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen also voted for that bill.
But the legislation failed as Tea Party Republicans and liberal Democrats voted against it for opposite reasons. Tea Partiers, including Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., objected because food stamp cuts were too low. Liberals, including Minnesota DFLers Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum, objected because the cuts were too high.
If the conference committee cannot find common ground, experts say it will be a monumental example of self-destructive politics in the nation’s capital.
The farm bill “has been the poster child for dysfunction,” said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “You’re talking about 3½ years of negotiations.”
In the past, Americans could count on getting a farm bill because of “a coalition of liberals interested in food stamps and farmers interested in price supports,” Ornstein said. “That coalition fell apart in the House.”
The conference committee’s ability to put it back together is not certain. The conference committee must remarry agriculture and nutrition into a single bill to have any chance in the Senate. But, Ornstein said, an attempt to gut food stamps could poison the whole process.
Klobuchar believes the conference committee will agree on a farm bill. “People went out of their way to say they wanted to come to an agreement,” she said after the meeting. “This is a moment where we can show goodwill and some progress out of the chaos.”
Peterson was more circumspect. Tea Party Republicans are not going to get what they want from the conference committee in terms of food stamp cuts, he said. Boehner may be forced to rely on more Democrats than Republicans if the House is to pass a farm bill. This was what the speaker and his lieutenants had to do to win a vote ending the government shutdown.