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Senate waits for House farm bill

The Senate Agriculture Committee's Chairwoman, Debbie Stabenow (D-MN) warned the leadership of the House of Representatives Monday that time is running out to get a farm bill passed before the old law expires at the end of September.

"We are ready to go to conference committee on the farm bill. We've put together a comprehensive bipartisan bill twice," Stabenow said of the Senate. The conference committee consists of members of House and Senate agriculture committees who negotiate the differences between bills passed by both chambers, producing one final bill to be approved or rejected by Congress.

"I'm very concerned that the process begin to move this week," Stabenow said. "There's no reason to wait or delay the process any more."

Stabenow said that after the House passed a farm bill without a nutrition title last week, that "we fully expected to receive it in the Senate right away."

"When Majority leader [Eric] Cantor (R-VA) announced they were not going to send us a bill, I was pretty stunned," she told reporters during a telephone press conference.

The two bills may have bigger differences than most that have gone to conference committee. Besides stripping out the nutrition title for the first time in 40 years, the House bill also would replace the 1938 and 1949 permanent law with the House version of the rules governing commodity programs.

Stabenow said that leaves a question of what happens to the rest of the farm bill, including its title on conservation.

"This is a very, very serious issue," she said, adding that it may be the biggest worry of agricultural groups. "There's a tremendous amount of questions, tremendous amount of opposition to doing this."

For Stabenow, it's a third serious attempt at getting a farm bill through Congress. In 2011, she and Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, who was the top Republican on her committee at the time, worked with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) and the ranking member, Representative Collin Peterson (D-MN) to draft a farm bill that would have been included in a deficit-cutting bill by a "Super Committee" of House and Senate members. The Super Committee failed to reach agreement, so the bill, with its $23 billion in savings, failed, too.

Last year the Senate passed another farm bill drafted by Stabenow's committee, only to see it die when the House leadership refused to bring the bipartisan bill from Lucas's committee to a vote. This year a farm bill seemed closer when the Senate again passed a slightly different version of a farm bill. Lucas's committee produced another bipartisan bill, but the House resisted its own leadership by voting it down in June. Last week's vote by the House on the "Farm bill farm bill," as Lucas calls it, passed by a narrow, Republicans-only vote.

At one point, Stabenow had to pause to remember how long ago she and other ag committee leaders had put together the "Super Committee" farm bill and joked, "This feels like Groundhog Day, the movie, to me. Every time I get up we do the farm bill again."

Although Stabenow said she wants to work with Lucas and Peterson again to put create a final farm bill, she said it would have to include a nutrition title.

"We could not pass that through the Senate nor would the President of the United States sign that kind of a bill," she said. Nutrition programs like food stamps wouldn't end without a nutrition title, she said, but there would be no policy reform at all, either. The Senate Farm bill cuts $4 billion over 10 years from food stamps, an amount considered too small by House Republican conservatives. But Stabenow said that Senate reforms that end food stamps for lottery winners and college students living with their parents, would be left out with no nutrition title. Congressional appropriations committees would decide how much to spend on food stamps. "It is more vulnerable to continual fights over nutrition without the five-year policy put in place," she said.

The House Agriculture Committee's farm bill that was defeated in June would have cut five times as much from food stamps, but it was considered too little by some Republicans. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has proposed some $130 billion in cuts.

If the House passes a separate nutrition title with that amount of spending cuts, it could doom any attempt to pass a farm bill in the Senate.

"That's so extreme that it would have bipartisan opposition in the Senate," Stabenow said.

In spite of such differences, already passed or waiting for more action in the House, Stabenow wants to move ahead on the farm bill and opposes another extension of the 2008 farm law, which was rolled into the "fiscal-cliff" tax deal at the beginning of this year. Doing so "continues big subsidies" that both committees have voted to eliminate by ending direct payments. The payments are continuing for 2013.

Stabenow said she prefers to have the normal conference committee process for writing a final farm bill, but she indicated she'd be flexible on how that's done.

"Given the strange process we've had in the House, up to this point, I will support any fair and open process that gets us to a farm bill," she told

When asked if she expected an outcry from constituents during the August recess if no more progress is made on the farm bill, she replied, "I hope there's an outcry if we haven't even been able to get to conference by August."

She also suggested a political price in 2014 if delays continue.

"I know for sure that in Senate races, the fact that the House would not even take up a farm bill was an issue in our winning some Senate races,"  she said, referring to the 2012 elections.

Stabenow repeated, as she often does, that 16 million Americans depend on the agricultural economy, and that the bill is needed to both save tax dollars and help create jobs. 

"All eyes are on the House of Representatives to see if they understand what this is all about," she said.

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