Farm bill talks portend next big congressional showdown

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 26, 2013 - 7:40 PM

As negotiations start Wednesday, differences on food stamps and dairy policy challenge the conference committee.

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Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., center, joins Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, right, and Sen. John Hoeven, R-ND, left, to speak to reporters as the Senate votes on a farm bill that sets policy for farm subsidies, food stamps and other farm and food aid programs for the next five years, at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, June 10, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) ORG XMIT: DCSA126

Photo: Associated Press,

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– U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota thinks his congressional colleagues may be embarrassed enough by the recent debt ceiling showdown to actually cooperate in farm bill negotiations that start this week.

Craig Cox, a vice president for the Environmental Working Group, is not so sure.

The conference committee meetings that kick off Wednesday will be the first major opportunity for a polarized House and Senate to work together since a last-minute deal to reopen the government and raise the country’s borrowing limit before it defaulted on its loan payments.

“What we saw in the last month was a lot of dysfunction and something that was really ugly and unnecessary and, frankly, reckless.” Franken said. “I think there’s some eagerness of most people in both houses to do our jobs.”

But the Senate and House versions of five-year farm bills that the conference committee must marry still reflect deep divisions between the parties and the chambers. This is especially true of outlays for the supplemental nutrition program, popularly known as food stamps.

The bipartisan Senate bill cuts $4 billion from food stamps over the next five years. The Republican-passed House bill, which had virtually no Democratic support, cuts $40 billion.

Cox believes the enormous food stamp gap and differences in dairy and conservation policies do not bode well for passage of a new stand-alone farm bill by Dec. 31.

“Odds are there will not be a farm bill at the end of the year,” Cox said. “I think some parts of the farm bill will get put into the budget bill that gets passed.”

Ira Shapiro, a former senior staffer in the Senate, government policy expert and author of “The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis,” said that a history of bipartisanship puts significant pressure on conferees to find common ground on a farm bill.

“It is a striking example of congressional failure that they haven’t agreed to one,” Shapiro said.

Polls showed Americans blaming House Republicans most for the shutdown/debt ceiling crisis. That, Shapiro added, provides even more incentive to pass a farm bill.

“I’d like to believe that some of the Republicans will absorb the lesson of the recent debacle,” he said. “The Republican Party is suffering an enormous loss of support around the country.”

Minnesota’s three appointees on the conference committee — Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Reps. Collin Peterson and Tim Walz, all Democrats — remain optimistic.

“I’m hopeful of getting a bill by year’s end,” said Peterson, the ranking minority member of the House Agriculture Committee.

Peterson’s optimism stems from the fact that most of the conference committee members serve on ag committees in both chambers and that those committees have traditionally worked together.

But the House voted down the bipartisan farm bill produced by its ag committee to pass separate bills for farm programs and food stamps. Peterson said the House leadership’s appointment of Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., to the conference committee was ominous because Southerland helped in that separation.

“He can hold the whole thing up,” Peterson said.

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