Congress is poised to punt on yet another major legislative matter, as hope is drying up for a new farm bill ahead of an end-of-month deadline, increasing the likelihood the measure won't be done until after the November elections.
The Senate in June easily passed a new five-year, $500 billion version that trims farm subsidies and land-conservation spending from the current bill. But the measure — which also pays for the federal food stamp program for the poor — is bogged down in the House, where movement on a multiyear deal has collapsed after conservative Republicans pushed for deeper cuts.
The House Agriculture Committee passed its own farm bill this summer. Republican leaders who control the House, however, have refused to bring it to the full chamber floor for a vote, citing a lack of votes.
The situation has put House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, in political bind. If he gives in to his conservative wing, any measure that comes out of his chamber will almost certainly be rejected by the Democrat-controlled Senate. And if he does nothing and lets the current farm bill expire without a replacement, he will be blamed for leaving farmers vulnerable.
A short-term, six- or 12-month extension of the current law also is an option. But with the measure considered bloated compared with the reformed Senate version, such a move would open up House GOP leaders to criticisms from fiscal conservatives and may not even pass muster in the chamber.
The current five-year law is set to expire at the end of September. But with Congress slated to leave town at the end of next week and not return until after the elections, there is little time left to broker a compromise.
"We're at a stage now where it's been a total failure ... of leadership in the House just to walk away from this, and that's what they're doing," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, on Tuesday. "There is no bill that's come from the House, nothing."
Some farm bill provisions, such as food stamps, will continue even if a new measure isn't in place by the deadline. But others, such as crop insurance and disaster relief, won't.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat, says he is holding out hope a deal can be reached by the deadline — even if that means lawmakers would have stay in Washington through the end of the month.
"We've got 18 days until end of month, and it is absolutely critical we get this farm bill done," said Mrs. Stabenow during a conference call with reporters.
The Senate bill has been praised for cutting costs by replacing direct subsidies to farmers with payments linked to market prices of crops, as well as money-saving food-stamp reforms.
Farm and agriculture-related groups have pushed for a five-year measure. The American Farm Bureau Federation has called the Senate version a "solid bill" and "includes important reforms and is fiscally responsible.
Hundreds of farmers and supporters gathered on the Capitol grounds Wednesday to push Congress to pass a farm bill, with a few members of Congress from both parties speaking to the crowd, including Mrs. Stabenow.
Rep. Kristi Noem, South Dakota Republican and member of the House Agriculture Committee, who also addressed the rally, said she is "tired of the excuses" for Congress not passing a farm bill.
"Washington, D.C., makes up too many excuses. I'm not taking it anymore. I hope you aren't taking it anymore," Mrs. Noem said. "Let's get to work, and let's get a farm bill now."
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