By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent
DTN Ag Policy Editor
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The cheers and jeers were all over the spectrum Friday after the House of Representatives failed to pass its version of the farm bill following a raucous debate this week.
The setback adds to the possibility of an extension that could complicate farmers' ability to switch commodity programs next fall for their base acres. Declining revenue guarantees for the Agricultural Revenue Coverage (ARC) have led to the likelihood that farmers enrolled in ARC are looking for the chance to switch at least some farms to Price Loss Coverage (PLC) for their safety net.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, had said the vote on the farm bill would tell farmers and ranchers if Congress stands with them or not. But other elements of the bill, and desire among some Republicans for an immigration vote, got in the way of passage.
"We experienced a setback today after a streak of victories all week," Conaway said after fending off several amendments in the Rules Committee and on the House floor. "We may be down, but we are not out. We will deliver a strong, new farm bill on time as the president of the United States has called on us to do. Our nation's farmers and ranchers and rural America deserve nothing less."
The bill went down to defeat with 198 members voting for the legislation and 213 voting against it. Conaway had sought to pass a bill with just GOP support because of SNAP changes. But the strategy failed, as 30 Republicans joined all 183 Democrats voting against it. The bill fell 17 votes short in a 198-213 vote.
The entire Democratic caucus opposes the farm bill because of tougher job-and-training requirements for people who receive food aid under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Other changes would have restricted the ability of states to expand the income eligibility for people to receive SNAP aid.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Ag Committee, told reporters after the vote that he has ideas to fix the SNAP section of the bill so that enough Democrats would support it to pass the bill. But Conaway, as the committee chairman, will need to ask for Peterson's help.
"I'm willing to go back to the table to help them fix this. If they will listen to me, I can deliver a lot of Democratic votes," Peterson told reporters in the Capitol, while Conaway canceled a scheduled media availability event Friday.
While Freedom Caucus members who want a vote on immigration claimed to have brought the bill down, Peterson noted that moderate Republicans considered the work requirements and tougher access standards in SNAP too harsh. The record shows that the Republicans who voted against it included House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.; Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.; and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., all of whom are considered moderate Republicans.
As some farm groups expressed disappointment, Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, called the bill's defeat "only a bump in the road on the way to passing the farm bill that America's farmers and ranchers so urgently need."
National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said the farm bill needed to fail because it did not necessarily improve the safety net for farmers while eliminating conservation programs his members support. "Major changes need to be made to this bill. Farmers Union urges the House to send it back to committee to make significant improvements worthy of the men and woman who feed, fuel and clothe our nation," Johnson said.
Countering NFU was American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall, who called the vote a blow to farmers and ranchers. "We are already starting to hear from farmers across the nation, many of whom are perplexed and outraged at this morning's vote," Duvall said. "They are facing very real financial challenges. We call on all members of Congress not to use farmers and ranchers as pawns in a political game. The risk-management tools of the farm bill are too important, particularly at a time of depressed farm prices. We urge the House to pass HR 2 as soon as possible."
Lindsey Lusher Shute, co-founder and executive director of the National Young Farmer Coalition, said Friday's vote should prove that Congress can't pass a farm bill by dividing the two parties or dividing farmers from those who use food-aid programs.
"We need a farm bill that works for, and includes, all of us. One that supports farmers and ranchers struggling through an economic downturn or growing amidst a drought, and one that can sustain farming as a viable livelihood for future generations," Lusher-Shute said. "We cannot wait another farm bill to address the structural barriers holding our generation back. The House farm bill presented today didn't heed that call. The House was right to defeat it, and let's hope it's back to the drawing board."
Others pointed to the decline in farm incomes, especially since 2013, as reason Congress needs to pass a bill. "Plain and simple: the farm bill matters," said John Heisdorffer, an Iowa farmer and president of the American Soybean Association. "U.S. soybean growers and everyone involved in agriculture depend on this vital piece of legislation. This bill provides a farm safety net, improves conservation, places value on exports and feeds our nation."
Under House rules, the House could introduce a motion to reconsider the bill within two legislative days. There was an attempt to introduce that motion Friday, but it stopped midway. It's not clear how exactly reconsideration could take place -- whether it would have to be exactly the same bill or one with some changes.
Peterson said that the bill can still get done this year, but an extension would have only two problems: farmers' inability to change from the Agricultural Risk Coverage to the Price Loss Coverage program, and no increase in acreage under the Conservation Reserve Program. The dairy program has already been fixed, he said.
Peterson also said he would prefer to finish the bill this year because it will be harder to pass next year whether the Republicans or the Democrats control the House. In the latter case, Peterson would be chairman.
Peterson noted that he decided to oppose the GOP on SNAP changes even though "this is not popular in my district." He added, however, that his position had helped attract Democratic votes to defeat the sugar amendment, which would have hurt his farmers who produce more sugar beets than any other district in the country.
The GOP nutrition title is based on stricter work requirements, but Peterson said that his biggest objection is the creation of a bureaucracy that is supposed to train people who do not have jobs. The bill would save money because some SNAP beneficiaries would drop out of the program and the money would go toward training programs that critics say would amount to only $30 per month per trainee.
The cost of training two million people adequately "would be $50 billion," Peterson said.
Peterson has been regarded as a conservative Democrat, but Friday he vigorously defended the SNAP program. "Everybody gets down on their luck some time or other," Peterson said, noting that most SNAP participants are on the program for less than a year.
"There is less fraud in food stamps than in crop insurance," he said.
Editor's note: Jerry Hagstrom reported from Washington, D.C., and Chris Clayton reported from Omaha, Neb.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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