By David Rogers
With farmers rallying at the Capitol Wednesday and the Senate showing no appetite for disaster aid substitutes, divisions are surfacing more among House Republicans over their leadership's decision to block action on a five-year farm bill.
Fresh from the summer recess, farm state lawmakers set off what was described as a spirited discussion at Monday's meeting the GOP whip team, and the echoes continued at a Tuesday session of the full Republican conference.
Freshman Rep. Rick Berg (R-N.D.), who has been hurt politically at home by the farm bill impasse, helped to trigger the whips' discussion. But grayer heads--and traditional team players-- backed him up including Reps. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Randy Neugebauer (R-Tex.), as well as House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.)
"Members had been home. People know the clock's ticking," Cole said of the exchanges. "I believe we have a product ready to move," he told POLITICO. "We have an opportunity to do something that is not partisan. I think we ought to do it."
"Of the 100 agriculture districts in the House, 73 are in our hands. A majority of our conference would vote for it," Cole said. "Politically it's the smart thing to do and institutionally it's the right thing. It may not be perfect but we ought to have the courage to put it on the floor and let Congress work its will."
Neugebauer said his fellow conservatives demanding still greater cuts from food stamps were missing the point that the nutrition program will continue without change under the continuing resolution to be voted on Thursday, while the existing farm program will begin to unravel if nothing is done before Sept. 30.
"If you don't do anything, the food stamps continue regardless of what you do on the farm bill," Neugebauer said in an interview. "But if you let the farm bill expire on Sept. 30, the farm policy part of it expires, and you don't get any reforms which were actually passed in a very bipartisan way out of the House Ag Committee."
Berg, who met Tuesday as well with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-N.D.), told POLITICO he remains frustrated but hopeful "there is a different momentum in the House from 24 hours ago." And Cantor? "I certainly think he's more attuned to it today," Berg said.
Berg said his frustration was that House Republicans had been committed to an open, often messy debate on other topics but then pulled up short on the farm bill.
"To just say we're going to stall and not do anything This is not the way the process has to work here," Berg said. "Farmers at home do their job. This is the House's job."
Lucas is keeping a low profile, and following on private talks with the House leadership at the Republican convention in Tampa, the chairman appears resigned to no action on his bill until after the election. Lucas spoke up in the whip's discussion Monday but has shown no willingness to do more to challenge Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who seems intent on running out the clock until after the election and then pushing for a one year extension of the current farm program.
"Every contingency is we'll run the world on the other side of the election," Cole said, describing the mindset for some inside his conference. "You can wait later and also lose the elections and do worse."
The situation has most infuriated Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow. And in a conference call with reporters Tuesday, the Michigan Democrat all but ruled out any action on an interim disaster aid package until the House shows some movement on the larger bill.
This could pose a real hardship for livestock producers caught in the devastating drought this summer. But Stabenow dismissed the short-term disaster aid bill passed by the House before the August recess as "wholly inadequate" and said she has seen "no desire by the House leadership to do anything" to broaden the coverage.
"This is just absolutely unacceptable," Stabenow said of Boehner's position on the farm bill. "In my time here--and this is my fourth farm bill--I have never seen a situation where a bipartisan bill came out of committee and was not taken up on the floor."
"It's very clear that farm country is overwhelmingly saying: just get the job done. The House should take the precious few days they have in session and act."
"Just as every farmer and rancher has to get in the morning and do the job in front of them and not delay it, this is our job."