WASHINGTON - With Republicans badly split over farm subsidies and cutting food stamps, House GOP leaders Tuesday decided to drop plans to extend the current farm program for one year and instead will press for immediate help for drought-stricken livestock producers.
The decision comes as Republicans feel pressure to do something for drought-hit farmers and ranchers before Congress begins its summer recess.
The party remains stymied by internal divisions between conservatives and farm-state lawmakers on how to proceed with a broader renewal of farm subsidies and the food stamp program.
Republicans initially had announced plans to extend for one year the current farm and food programs, which expire on Sept. 30. But GOP leaders pulled that measure from Wednesday's floor schedule amid continued resistance from many conservatives and after Democrats announced opposition to the measure.
Earlier this month, the House Agriculture Committee approved a new five-year farm bill that would eliminate much-criticized direct payments, under which farmers are paid even when they don't plant a crop, to be replaced with new price and revenue support programs. The Senate passed companion legislation in June.
"My priority remains to get a five-year farm bill on the books and put those policies in place, but the most pressing business before us is to provide disaster assistance to those producers impacted by the drought conditions who are currently exposed," House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said. "The House is expected to consider a disaster assistance package on Thursday and I encourage my colleagues to support it."
Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the senior Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, opposes the one-year extension, saying it would doom the chances of a five-year farm bill that would make significant changes to much-maligned farm subsidies. He's undecided on the latest gambit.
Instead, GOP aides said, the House will take up a much smaller measure aimed at dealing with this summer's drought, the worst in about a half-century. The aides required anonymity because rank and file Republicans had not been briefed on the plans.
Many conservative Republicans were unhappy with the prospect of voting for farm subsidies and were also unhappy with simply renewing the food stamp program, which has grown rapidly in recent years.
The existing farm program offers drought protection to most farmers this summer through crop insurance.
The new disaster relief would revive programs that were part of the 2008 farm bill but which expired last year. In particular they affect cattle, pork and other livestock producers who generally do not participate in the federally subsidized insurance programs that will partially shield corn, soybean and other crop producers from drought damage. Growers of some specialty crops like cherries and nursery plants also stand to win relief.
Details were to be released Tuesday night, but earlier estimates put the package's cost at over $600 million.
Republicans plan to bring the measure to the floor under expedited procedures that require a two-thirds vote for passage. But top Peterson, who's support is crucial, said he's undecided whether he'll vote for the measure and was not pleased at cuts to conservation programs.
"I'm not wild about that," Peterson told reporters. "I'm going to withhold judgment until I see what they've got."
House Republican leaders have been reluctant to bring the new five-year farm bill to the floor because of concerns it could go down to an embarrassing defeat. Some GOP conservatives object to the high cost — nearly $100 billion a year, with 80 percent of that going to the food stamp program that now helps feed some 46 million people — while some Democrats oppose the bill because it would cut about $1.6 billion a year from food stamps.
But farm groups, as well as the Obama administration, have been pressing the House to act, citing the crisis over the drought as reason to put new farm policy into place as soon as possible. The House and Senate farm bills also restore the expired disaster relief programs.