REDWOOD FALLS, Minn. — The Farmfest forum was billed as "finding the endgame to a farm bill," but U.S. Reps. Collin Peterson and Tim Walz said Tuesday they can't see a clear path forward for breaking the impasse over the legislation.
The Democrat-led Senate has approved a bipartisan five-year farm bill to govern farm programs and food stamps. But the Republican-controlled House has passed a bill for farm programs only, splitting off nutrition programs into a separate measure in order to seek deeper cuts to food stamps.
Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said that while negotiators will devise a compromise bill, he's not hopeful of its passage.
"What's going to be a compromise with the Senate will be opposed by a majority of House Republicans," he told the Farmfest crowd. "That's why I can't tell you what's going to happen."
Peterson, Walz and some farm group leaders on the forum panel said the bill is being held up by tea party-backed House Republicans.
"It's not a Republican issue. It's a small group that's decided that this is the route they want to take," said Walz, another Minnesota Democrat on the agriculture committee.
Peterson said he sees House Majority Leader Eric Cantor as the main roadblock, saying, "I don't get along with that guy and I don't know what to do about him."
Republicans last week said they're preparing legislation that would cut food stamps by as much as $4 billion annually, downsizing a program they say has become bloated. That's twice as deep as what was in the original farm bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee, and much steeper than cuts passed by the full Senate.
"The Senate is not going to go along with that," Peterson said. "The president is not going to go along with that."
Walz said nobody is more bipartisan than Peterson, and that both sides should be able to find common interests.
"Compromise is not a dirty word," Walz said. "It's the glue that holds the democracy together. I'm just baffled."
Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, said he and other farming leaders met with every incoming freshman after the 2010 elections — many of whom were Republicans swept into office by the tea party movement. Johnson said the new tea party members of Congress had a unified message about the farm bill and food stamps.
"They said my boss (Cantor) was elected to come to Washington to cut with a meat cleaver, not a scalpel," Johnson said. "You have that right wing that is like the tail wagging the dog."
The Republican Party of Minnesota later issued a statement accusing the state's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of using farmers as "political pawns" for pushing "big government welfare programs."
While not being as specific about who's to blame, Dale Moore, policy director of the American Farm Bureau, said this year's debate is different than others he's been involved in.
"This truly is one of the strangest farm bill processes I've ever seen," he said.
Tuesday marked the first day of Farmfest, a three-day annual event near Redwood Falls that features hundreds of agribusiness displays from across the Midwest.