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House committee approves farm bill

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%.

In his own Democratic caucus, "I think people are going to decide whether they want a farm bill or not," Peterson said.

Committee Chairman Lucas also fought against changes in food stamp spending from his own party on the committee, voicing opposition to an amendment that would have cut food stamp spending by $33 billion.

Peterson told reporters later that he has talked to Republican members of the House who would accept not passing a farm bill in order to cut food stamp spending. But he has explained that even if a farm bill expires, spending on nutrition programs wouldn't end. Yet farm programs in the current law that are not funded beyond 2012--the energy title and some conservation programs, for example--would stop.

"What you're going to do," Peterson said he tells those members of the House, "is you're going to screw your farmers and what you're trying to cut is going to go on without any change."

Public efforts to move the bill along began a few hours later on Thursday, when North Dakota's only Representative, Republican Rick Berg, called for speedy consideration of a farm bill while making a short statement on the floor of the House.

Agriculture.com contacted the offices of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) to ask if floor time has been scheduled for debate on the farm bill.

Boehner's spokesman, Michael Steel, responded by email that, "The Majority Leader’s office handles the floor schedule."

Later on Thursday, Cantor's office responded, saying, "We appreciate the hard work of the Chairman and the Ag Committee and will be discussing the Committee's product with our Members in the weeks ahead."

Meanwhile, Lucas, who has farming interests in Oklahoma, seems undaunted by any potential strong headwinds. And Peterson could still add a touch of optimism after a long day of debate. "We just start plowing ahead," he said "Nobody thought we would come to this point."

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