House GOP seen blocking farm measure

Southerners complain of need for more help

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The five-year farm bill, which cleared the Senate last week, could be headed for rough waters in the House with Republicans complaining that the upper chamber’s bill favors Midwesterners’ crops over Southerners’ produce and saying a final compromise will need to have deeper cuts to the food-stamp and crop-insurance programs.

Rep. Frank D. Lucas, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, has promised the House bill will cut at least $33 billion from the federal deficit — $10 billion more than the Senate version — with the cuts coming equally from food stamps and commodity programs.

The bill is likely to ignite fights along both regional and party lines.

Lawmakers from the corn- and bean-heavy Midwest tended to support the Senate version, which earned 16 Republican votes last week en route to passing 64-35. But Southerners have complained that the bill’s crop-insurance and risk-management programs aren’t as helpful to the rice and peanut farmers in their districts.

Complicating the fight, Democrats are opposed to cutting safety-net programs in the face of high unemployment, while House Republicans have already taken action to cut food stamps this year to reduce the deficit and avert automatic cuts in defense spending.

“It’s going to be very difficult for Chairman Lucas to walk that line and satisfy his deficit-reduction members but not alienate these Democrats they’ve typically relied on to pass this bill,” said Joshua Sewell, a policy analyst for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that opposes the Senate farm bill.

Senators said they did take some major steps toward reform, including voting to eliminate direct payments to farmers, who often pocketed sizable federal subsidies even if they didn’t plant any crops.

Instead of direct payments, the Senate bill would invest more in crop insurance and set up a new program to supplement it, where the government would pay farmers for their losses when their revenue falls below 89 percent of a benchmark based on five-year average prices and yields. For certain crops, this would guarantee a profit.

It would cost 2.3 percent less than the last farm bill with the shift to market-based subsidies, combined with cutting $4 billion in waste from the food-stamp program and consolidating conservation programs.

But that hasn’t quieted some Republicans who want to chop down the bill further and argue that the farm subsidies are still too cushy.

Mr. Lucas has indicated he supports a program that would reimburse farmers for some of the steeper losses crop insurance doesn’t cover, saying the Senate version provides for farmers when they suffer mild loses but would leave them hanging in a crisis.

“I want a real safety net,” Mr. Lucas told the Oklahoma Farm Report radio program last month. “Not just keep the good times the best, but if we have a free fall, I want something to catch us.”

Undergirding all the debate is lawmakers’ sense of urgency to agree on a bill before the current one expires at the end of September.

Republicans voted to cut the food-stamp program by $13.3 billion annually over the next decade as part of the House budget passed earlier this year. If they insist on similar cuts now, it could stall the farm bill, since Democrats have said cuts that deep are out of the question.

“The level that passed by the House in their budget resolution is absolutely unacceptable to me and the majority of those in the Senate,” Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat, said after shepherding the Senate bill through the floor last week. “Certainly, that is not something I would support.”

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