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April 23, 2014

Boehner Faces Leadership Test on Farm Bill

Speaker John A. Boehner faces one of his first big leadership tests of the year as he brings a farm bill to the floor this week amid opposition from a host of powerful conservative advocacy groups that have frequently bedeviled his speakership.

It is uncommon for a speaker to pledge to vote for a bill, and the Ohio Republican’s promise last week to do so on the farm bill is even rarer, given that he has not voted for a farm bill since 1996.

Still, stakeholders on and off Capitol Hill could not predict on Monday afternoon whether the measure would have the votes to pass in the face of opposition from conservative groups that generally see the farm bill as a big government boondoggle, including the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth, and liberal groups opposed to the cuts to food stamps.

The White House issued a veto threat on Monday, saying the bill “would reduce access to food assistance for struggling families and their children, does not contain sufficient commodity and crop insurance reforms, and does not provide funding for renewable energy, which is an important source of jobs and economic growth in rural communities across the country.”

Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity has started running ads in Boehner’s district urging him to vote against the bill.

“It’s surprising to me, really, he would go on record for something like that,” said James Valvo, the group’s policy director, adding that his organization supports splitting the bill up so agriculture and nutrition programs are dealt with separately. The cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, while too deep for most Democrats, do not go far enough for many Republicans, given that the bill as a whole would cost close to $1 trillion over the next decade.

Boehner has signaled that he will vote for the legislation not because he likes everything in it, but because it is important for the House to pass a farm bill in order to go to conference with the Senate, which passed its own version on June 10.

“[He] plans to vote for this one because it contains significant reforms,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Monday in an email to CQ Roll Call. “He will also support an amendment to add further reforms to the bill by further overhauling the dairy program. If these reforms don’t pass the House, taxpayers end up with no spending cuts and another extension of current law, and current law is lousy.”

That’s what happened last year, when the House failed to bring a full farm bill to the floor and both chambers extended a select number of farm programs in the year-end budget deal.

But many lawmakers are torn between wanting to pass a farm bill and not wanting to go on record supporting provisions they dislike.

A spokesman for one conservative advocacy group told CQ Roll Call on Monday that his organization’s understanding was that Republicans did not yet have the 218 votes ensuring majority support.

It means Boehner and other supporters of the bill will be relying on Democrats to put it over the top. A Democratic leadership aide on Monday said it was unlikely that House Democratic leadership would formally urge a position either way.

In addition to Boehner, AFP is targeting nine other Republicans and five Democrats, including Agriculture ranking member Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., and Reps. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., and Erik Paulsen, R-Minn. Valvo characterized the other targeted lawmakers as hailing from rural districts.

AFP’s ads may be of questionable value. Boehner’s district, for example, includes large swaths of farm country, and his support for the bill could actually help rather than hurt him.

Yvonne Lesicko, the senior director of legislative and regulatory policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau, said she thought Boehner’s choice to back this incarnation of the farm bill was good news both for the bill and for his home state.

“What it means for his district and the state of Ohio and our nation means a good, strong, five-year farm bill that will offer stability to major productivity in our sector,” Lesicko said. “Agriculture is still number one in Ohio. One in every seven jobs is related to the agriculture community in Ohio.

“It’s huge in terms of what this means.”

In an interview with CQ Roll Call on Monday afternoon, Connolly remained undecided, though he said it would be difficult to support a measure that “cuts $20 billion from nutrition programs while enhancing crop insurance, much of which will go to very large landowners and agribusiness.”

Democratic support, Connolly continued, would probably be split among those who have farm interests in their districts and those who would have no other reason to vote against the bill except for their own values.

“Many of us come from urban and suburban districts that don’t really have big or deep agriculture interests,” he said, “so our interest is in the bill that is very much driven by the nutrition programs.”

As for whether Boehner’s reputation hinges on the measure’s success later this week, Connolly said there was some truth to that.

“I don’t think any bill’s vote is dispositive, but obviously it wouldn’t help in terms of his ability to deliver on an agenda, given the fact that now he has put his prestige and influence on the line in favor of this bill,” he said. “I think it would be a very serious blow to his speakership.”

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