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House committee approves farm bill

DANIEL LOOKER Updated: 07/13/2012 @ 11:20am Business Editor

At 12:55 a.m. Thursday, after more than a day of sometimes contentious debate, the House Agriculture Committee voted 35 to 11 to approve an amended farm bill.

Those voting no included three Republicans who wanted bigger cuts in food stamp spending and seven Democrats who didn't want to cut the nutrition program at all.

"I think we kept this bill together and we're working in a bipartisan manner," a weary Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the committee, told Agriculture.com shortly after the vote.

The committee's chairman, Frank Lucas (R-OK) told reporters moments later, "We beat the expectations of a good many people in this building and in this town today."

Lucas wouldn't say exactly what his options are for getting the House leadership to put the bill up for a vote on the floor. "Those kinds of things we'll discuss tomorrow," he said.

Peterson, a Minnesota congressman, was more blunt. "They don't have much to do on the floor until August first anyway. I don't know what their excuse is to not get us on the floor."

Peterson said he didn't want to interfere with how Lucas tries to move the bill forward. But he said he might visit with the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, to encourage prompt action.

"Boehner's a friend of mine and I will talk to him, probably sometime next week," he said.

If there is one issue that unites virtually all farm groups and conservation organizations, its support for passage of a farm bill this year. Farm bills have been passed after they expired before, but Peterson believes that would be difficult to do after the election in November.

There's speculation in Washington that if the House Ag Committee can't get floor time scheduled for the farm bill, that its leaders might go to a conference with leaders of the Senate Agriculture to put together a final bill. It could be attached to any legislation considered this year, even during the lame duck session of Congress after the election in November.

But that session, which will have to deal with expiring tax cuts and deficit reduction, could be even more stressful and partisan than Congress is this summer.

"There's no good scenario beyond September 30," Peterson said, referring to the date that the current farm bill expires.  And he doesn't think that avoiding farm bill floor debate would be popular with members of either party in the House.

Peterson is well aware of the rancorous divisions between the parties over food stamp spending.

Peterson said during the committee debate that he wasn't comfortable with all aspects of the cuts to food stamp spending in the farm bill but he voted against amendments that would have made no cuts. He also voted against another that would have matched the House bill's food stamp cuts with the smaller $4 billion in cuts in the Senate farm bill. After the vote, Peterson pointed out to reporters that farm programs are taking about 20% of the reduction in farm bill spending while the slowing of spending on food stamps is less than 2%.

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