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February 12, 2016

Farm Bill Nearing Home Stretch (Updated)

Stabenow believes the farm bill conference could be completed this week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Stabenow believes the farm bill conference could be completed this week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The long-delayed farm bill may finally be on a glide path to passage, after months of partisan wrangling raised doubts over whether such a day would ever come.

House and Senate conferees are tentatively scheduled to meet Thursday to begin the final process of approving a bill that can be voted on by both chambers, senators and aides said. Leadership aides in both chambers indicated that the long-stalled legislation, which faltered in the House last session, could be sent to the president’s desk by the Martin Luther King Jr. Day recess.

For weeks, Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., have been engaged in one-on-one negotiations trying to bridge the gap between the two sides. They now believe they have made enough progress to bring the remaining issues to conferees for haggling.

“Sen. Stabenow thinks that sometime this week the conference could be completed. I hope that’s the case,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters Tuesday.

Beyond fighting over the final, contentious issues, there could be increased pressure on conferees to act swiftly on the bill — projected to reduce the deficit by about $20 billion — as members eye potential offsets for a pending three-month jobless benefits extension.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who said he is “hopeful” for a Thursday meeting, predicted several amendment votes will be held before members are comfortable signing off on the report. He specifically cited a contested measure on country of origin labeling as one of the votes he expects.

“There will be a number of [amendments], some that will generate the final compromise and some that just won’t happen, but people won’t let go of until you have the vote,” Hoeven said. “It’ll be the usual suspects.”

Two of the most controversial issues throughout the farm bill deliberations have been how to make cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, and dairy production and pricing provisions that safeguard against significant fluctuations in the cost of milk.

The likely path forward on food stamp savings, first reported by CQ Roll Call in December, revolves around reforming the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to eliminate abuse of the program by states.

The key is eliminating a loophole that enables states to help some low-income residents with nominal subsidies to pay for their heating in the winter in order to trigger much higher food stamp benefits. Some states, such as New York, will make a $1 LIHEAP payment to low-income people to automatically qualify them for the maximum federal food stamps standard utility allowance for 12 months.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that raising the minimum energy subsidy states would be required to make to $20 — a figure first proposed in the House farm bill — would be enough of a disincentive for states to stop using the loophole. That could save the government $8 billion over 10 years. The Senate position has offered to require a minimum $10 payment.

Several sources cautioned that there were still several significant compromises to be made, and a House GOP aide said that many of those issues are likely to be revealed on Thursday.

For example, a vote could come on what’s known as the “King amendment” — a provision sponsored by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that is intended to block California from applying its animal welfare standards to foods produced in other states.

“I would caution against saying that this means that everything’s done. It means we are very close to being done, but there are other steps in the process,” the aide added. “We hope in very short order we will be announcing a conference report, but that doesn’t mean the report would be voted on” at the conference meeting this week.

Rep. Marlin Stutzman, who lauded House GOP leadership’s decision last year to unbundle the farm bill’s agriculture and nutrition titles, is prepared to vote against any conference report that doesn’t maintain different authorizations.

“Now is not the time for Congress to take a step backwards by returning to business as usual,” Stutzman said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. The Indiana Republican’s office would not confirm the extent of his own whip operation to find members who might join him in withholding their support on these grounds.

Meanwhile, one House Democratic aide said there could be a core group of holdouts for any farm bill that contains “one dollar of SNAP cuts,” with resistance coming from members who are typically outspoken on the issue: Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Barbara Lee, D-Calif.

Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, who was named to the farm bill conference committee as Democratic leadership’s surrogate against food stamp cuts, has been coy about how she’s balanced the need to work with her fellow conferees with representing her very liberal peers.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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