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Senate Names High-Power Team for Farm Bill Negotiations

When farm bill negotiators get down to business, the 47 House “conferees” will face an unusually big-caliber Senate team, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as one of its members, a rare role for the leader. Senate Agriculture Committee leaders, in cheering the formal appointment of their nine negotiators, used “bipartisan” to describe their approach and take a swipe at the Republican-written House farm bill and its proposal to require more people to work 20 hours a week to qualify for food stamps.

“This strong group of Senate conferees knows how to work together on a bipartisan basis to get the farm bill across the floor,” said Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts and Senator Debbie Stabenow, the senior Democrat on the committee. Roberts is chairman of the bicameral committee.

Senators repeatedly mention that their bill passed, 86-11, the highest number of votes ever for a Senate farm bill. By contrast, only Republicans voted for the House bill and the House majority needed two attempts to pass their bill by a two-vote margin. The White House backed its SNAP work requirements as welfare reform. House Democrats said the GOP plan was unworkably complex and would drive people out of the food stamp program.

The Senate negotiators were chosen mostly by seniority, but Democrats gave one of their four seats to Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who is in a close race for reelection in a state that voted overwhelmingly for President Trump in 2016. Her challenger, Representative Kevin Cramer, is one of the House conferees. “A big victory for North Dakota,” tweeted Cramer, noting that the state’s entire congressional delegation — Cramer, Heitkamp, and Senator John Hoeven — are farm bill negotiators.

“With commodity prices falling as the administration’s trade war is escalating, we can’t waste any time or get bogged down with divisive and partisan provisions. The farm bill is too important to our farmers and our rural economy,” said Heitkamp.

An advocate of legalizing industrial hemp, McConnell said earlier this week that he expects the final version of the farm bill to be ready for a vote shortly after Labor Day. The Senate farm bill includes McConnell legislation to make states the primary regulators of industrial hemp, a plant that is grown for its fiber and edible seeds.

Congressional rules require the House and Senate conferees to hold at least one meeting in public. The date for that meeting will be decided later.

SNAP work requirements are the major issue dividing the House and Senate on the farm bill. Senators rejected soundly a work-requirement plan that mirrored the House proposal, so there is no obvious compromise. House Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway, who wrote the House bill, says he expected the final version of the farm bill to toughen work requirements.

The National Farmers Union urged farm bill negotiators to “provide substantive and long-term relief to farmers” from low commodity prices and potential damage from Trump tariffs by putting “substantially greater resources” into the farm bill. The NFU has suggested steps such as higher reference prices for cotton, soybeans, and grains.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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