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Ag committee's new alliances

Just before the House Agriculture Committee finished debating its farm bill late Wednesday night, a freshman Democrat on the committee, Michelle Lujan Grisham, spoke about an amendment she was withdrawing that would have reinstituted a ban on horse slaughter in the U.S.

Lujan Grisham, whose district includes Albuquerque, spoke about recent scandals in Europe where horse meat was improperly blended with beef hamburger, and she pointed out that horses in this country aren't raised for meat and can have contaminants dangerous to human health. She also wanted the ban for humane reasons.

Even though Grisham had given up on getting her idea passed, Republican committee member Kristi Noem was ready with a rebuttal. She, too, loves horses, she said. They're used on her family's working ranch. But a Government Accountability Office report on the ban on horse slaughter showed it had been a disaster, encouraging abandonment of old animals. Horses were instead slaughtered in Mexico and Canada.

"Being starved, abandoned, and trucked thousands of miles to Canada and Mexico, that's anything but humane," Noem said.

It's the kind of dispute many expect of the Ag Committee these days, where a new crop of conservative Republicans faces equally new urban Democrats on the Committee. Grisham was elected to Congress in 2012, just two years after Noem arrived.

Yet, the committee can just as easily confound conventional wisdom and, sometimes, its leaders.

Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) spoke against a proposal from Kurt Schrader, an Oregon Democrat, who wanted to offer organic farmers and ranchers a chance to have checkoffs for organic products.

Lucas said that checkoffs normally promote a specific product such as pork or beef, not a process of production like organic farming.

Other members pointed out that the organic trade groups often disparage conventional agriculture.

Schrader said USDA rules would prohibit an organic checkoff from attacking conventional ag.

"You make the point about not disparaging, but how do I present my organic pork without disparaging my nonorganic pork?" Lucas asked proponents of the new checkoff.

Wisconsin Republican Reid Ribble, elected to Congress in 2010, joined Schrader in pushing for the checkoff.

"I'm always struck with some of the folks on my side of the aisle who have issues with organic," said Ribble, who praised organic farmers as entrepreneurial and organic foods as an important, growing sector of the ag economy. "This is something we ought to be applauding, not condemning."

After a long debate, Lucas and other veterans of the committee found themselves on the losing side. Democrats and several Republicans backed the pro-organic measure 29 to 17. It doesn't automatically set up an organic checkoff. It would give USDA authority to start one if organic farmers and ranchers request it.

As debate over amendments continued for an hour or two longer than expected, Lucas didn't object when Austin Scott (R-GA) offered a proposal to add "the products of natural stone" to the list of approved commodities for USDA-supervised checkoffs.

"I've learned a lot about checkoffs," joked Lucas, who suggested members approve that amendment by voice vote. They did.

Not long afterward, Lucas asked if anyone had more amendments to the bill's last, miscellaneous title.

"Are there additional amendments? Additional amendments?" he asked, gesturing to all sides of the committee room. "God bless you. Title XII is now closed."

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