WASHINGTON — Deadline pressure to pass the farm bill has sown disagreement among even the Midlands Republicans who typically work together on a bill vital to their districts.
The issue has pitted members like Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., and Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, against such frequent agricultural allies as Nebraska Republican Reps. Lee Terry and Adrian Smith.
Fortenberry and Boswell are simply trying to force a farm bill vote onto the House floor before the Sept. 30 deadline, on which the current farm bill expires, while Terry and Smith aren't quite sold, saying they'd like to see more cuts from food stamps first.
The dispute also left longtime Iowa lawmakers Rep. Steve King and Rep. Tom Latham in a no-man's land of wanting a farm bill passed but concerned about the costs of watching it fail.
Fortenberry, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, is among a small-but-growing group of Republicans trying to force House Speaker John Boehner to schedule a floor vote on the bill.
The Lincoln lawmaker and several other Republicans have gone so far as to sign a “discharge petition” filed by Iowa Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley. It's a relatively rare procedural gambit for Fortenberry that could force a vote.
“We're upset,” Fortenberry said. “The whole concept of ag policy does not receive as high a level of respect as I think it should around here.”
Terry has said he wouldn't vote for the House Ag Committee bill because it still pours too much money into food stamps, a program that he says is beset by waste and fraud.
It is those food stamp and nutrition assistance programs now causing most of the angst in Washington over the farm bill. That's a stark difference from food stamps' previous role of attracting farm bill support from urban lawmakers.
Food stamps and similar social safety net programs now make up about 80 percent of the nearly $100 billion-a-year farm bill. Food stamp enrollment began climbing sharply amid the economic downtown in 2008, with 1 in 7 Americans now receiving the assistance.
“I'd like to see more reforms on the nutrition welfare side,” Terry said. “They got a heck of a boost in the stimulus package, and I think we need to really look at some reasonable reforms on who's eligible, how to prevent fraud, and see if we can't bring the numbers down.”
Fortenberry noted that the House Ag Committee sought to rein in automatic eligibility for food stamps and sliced $1.6 billion a year out of the program, but Terry was dismissive.
“Most people think that was an insignificant cut,” Terry said.
Terry said he's heard reports of people using food stamp benefits in ways that aren't “putting food on the plate for their kids,” such as selling the food-focused state debit cards for cash.
The Senate and the House Agriculture Committees passed different versions of a new bill, but Boehner, R-Ohio, has shown little interest in bringing up either one for a vote.
An array of agricultural groups rallied this week on Capitol Hill demanding that Congress approve a new five-year measure before the current one expires at the end of this month.
Democrats are pouncing on the dissension in the GOP ranks heading into the Nov. 6 election.
King already has been criticized by his opponent, Democrat Christie Vilsack, for not doing more to get a farm bill passed.
Vilsack, whose husband is U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, says King should sign the discharge petition.
King told The World-Herald that he has no intention of signing the petition and said Democrats could solve the impasse. He said that if 100 of their members got behind the petition, the farm bill would move forward. He also said he hoped Republican leaders would allow a farm bill floor vote.
“Bring it to the floor, and if we lose it, we lose it. But we'll never have it if we don't try,” he said.
Nebraska Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson said that his organization continues to push hard on the bill and that it will be difficult to resolve differences over food stamps until the measure reaches the floor.
“We just think that they need to move forward and the House needs to act,” Nelson said.
Still, the bill's challenges are evident in the fact that Smith is not ready to endorse the bill. Smith represents Nebraska's deeply agricultural 3rd Congressional District.
He said he is eager to see a five-year farm bill passed, in part so that Congress can move on to other issues.
But he said he's holding back support because of the soaring cost of the food stamp program. He defended the strategy of not bringing the committee bill to the floor until it's clear that the bill would pass.
“I'm not sure we want to take a vote and see it fail,” Smith said. “If we're concerned about uncertainty in the ag sector, I think that would add to the uncertainty.”
Smith noted that temporary extensions of farm policy were necessary during negotiations on the last farm bill.
But something must be done soon, with Congress expected to leave town at the end of next week. They won't return until after the November election.
Regardless of the outcome in Washington, the issue will reverberate through the campaign's home stretch.
Just look at the Midlands' only race between House incumbents, one from each party. Boswell is hammering Latham over the bill. He says Latham has touted his effectiveness in Congress and should be able to get the bill onto the floor given his ties to Boehner, who raised money for him in Council Bluffs.
Latham said he has talked to Republican leaders and was told they simply lack the votes.
“I keep encouraging them to bring it to the floor with great effort,” Latham said. “It's very frustrating to me that we're not able to get a vote on the farm bill.”
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