With her farm bill now slated for the Senate floor in June, Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow is reaching out to Southern lawmakers, trying to heal the breach that split her panel last month and put her at odds with allies in the House.
Southern rice and peanut growers are the two primary outliers, and the backroom talks are focused on tailoring some modest countercyclical program as a safety net for these commodities.
One option discussed last week would trigger assistance if prices fell below $10.50 per hundredweight for rice and $495 per ton of peanuts. These are the same indexes set in current law and far below what the growers have been asking for, especially in the case of rice. But eager to see Senate movement, House lawmakers sympathetic with the South say the potential deal must be considered as a bridge to a future House-Senate conference on the five-year bill.
Having just taken over the Agriculture Committee in this Congress, Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, is hemmed in herself by entrenched Midwest Corn Belt interests who see the farm bill’s new subsidy structure as payback after years of Southern dominance.
Fellow Democrats from the South, like Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, have a major stake in some compromise. But to a remarkable degree, the fighting is among Republicans and driven by animosities going back almost two decades to when Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) chaired the House Agriculture Committee and was famously undercut by Southern Republicans allied with the same commodities.
In fact, Stabenow reached a bipartisan compromise with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) last fall that would have satisfied rice and peanuts growers. But the bill approved in April reflects more of Roberts’s influence as the ranking Republican on the Senate committee.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office confirmed that he has promised floor time to Stabenow in June to try to move her bill. And Reid acted after getting assurance from Republican senators that they are committed to passage in a bipartisan fashion.
Senate action is pivotal for Lucas in the House. The Oklahoma Republican is poised to begin marking up his own farm bill in June and would be helped greatly by progress in the Senate, since House leaders would feel pressure then to give him floor time this summer.
“We have been committed to a collaborative and bipartisan process from the start — the committee is open to hearing everyone’s ideas and is willing to discuss proposals that fit within our framework, which is based on the idea that the market should set crop prices rather than Congress,” said Ben Becker, spokesman for the Senate committee. “As of now, there have been no proposals submitted to the committee and no agreements on anything other than what 16 out of 21 committee members voted for.”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who once chaired the Senate panel and has become the lead negotiator for the South, was also careful picking his words.
“I’m hopeful we’re going to be able to come up with something,” he told POLITICO of his talks with Stabenow. “She wants to come to the floor early but without a bloc of Southern votes, it’s going to be difficult. There are a number of folks, I don’t care what it is, [who] are going to vote against it ([the farm bill). So that’s why all Aggies need to be in support of what the bill is.”
“We’re looking for a bridge to try to get to conference. But it’s got to be something meaningful.”
The regional flare-up comes as all of American agriculture is under pressure to cut crop subsidies given the record deficits facing the government. There is broad agreement that the current system of direct cash payments can no longer be politically defended, especially at a time of high farm income. The question is how those savings are redistributed between deficit reduction and a revised safety net.