Now that the House has passed a farm bill, the Senate is eager to go to conference.

“We’re anxious to go (forward) and I’m very concerned that process begins to move this week,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, during a Monday (July 15) press conference.We’ve got only six legislative weeks before the current farm bill expires. Since we’re in session only four days a week, that makes 24 days counting today. So, there’s not a lot of time. There’s enough time to do it but we’ve got to get started in putting together the final agreement. There’s no reason to wait or delay the process anymore.”

Whether the result of Stabenow’s prodding or clearing up clerical issues, the House farm bill, which passed on a party-line vote, is expected to reach the Senate on Tuesday (July 16).

“I’m willing to take whatever the House gives us and … I’m confident we can put something together that will be able to get bipartisan support,” said Stabenow. “That’s what it will take – not just bipartisan support in the Senate, but also in the House.”

Meanwhile, agriculture leaders from both chambers have already begun talks. “I’ve talked to (Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee) and had a good discussion. I’ve talked to ranking member (Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson). They’re both anxious to get to conference, as well.

“I think we were all surprised … after the House voted on their bill on a partisan basis. We fully expected to receive in the Senate right away. In fact, we were intending to leave the Senate floor open that night to be able to receive the House bill so we could go through the procedures needed to go to conference.

“When (House Majority Leader Eric Cantor) announced they weren’t going to send us the bill, I was pretty stunned. It appears, at this point, that the (House) leadership wants to try to pass a Republican-only Nutrition Title.”

Lucas, said Stabenow, was unable to provide an answer as to why the House leadership had still not sent over the House farm bill. If only the agriculture leaders from both chambers would be left alone to hash out a new farm bill, “we could get this done. I feel that strongly, even today. We need to have the leadership of the House supporting (Lucas and Peterson) because they know how to put together a bipartisan bill.”

Stabenow also questioned House strategy considering the late date. “Why in the world, since they passed the rest of their farm bill with only Republican votes, didn’t they attach their Republican Nutrition Title bill last week and send it over? I couldn’t tell you what they’re doing. I can tell you that, with what’s already been passed, we’re ready to begin the (conference) process. Time is of the essence…

“We want to get to work and get this done. The longer the House waits before sending something to us, the less time we have before the current extension (of the 2008 farm bill) runs out. I’m not going to support an extension that leaves out some important pieces of farm policy and continues big subsidies we’ve all agreed should be eliminated.”

Permanent law

One major change the House farm bill would bring to farm policy is the end of permanent law.

Prior to the House farm bill vote Lucas defended replacing 1938 and 1949 permanent law with “whatever the ultimate product this farm bill process this year is. … I know many of you say ‘(older permanent law) is the hammer with which we force things to happen.’ Well, the hammer hasn’t worked very well in the last two years, has it? It’s time to move past that old paradigm, craft good agricultural policy for rural America and the consumer out there, and make it the permanent law.”

More here and here.

Agriculture groups, said Stabenow, are especially concerned with the possibility. “There are wide implications for this. There is deep, deep opposition.”

Adopting the House approach would “take the pressure off to create a farm bill every five years. What’s the impact on every other part of agriculture?”

If a conference hasn’t begun by August, “I hope there’s an outcry,” said Stabenow, who warned there would be consequences at the ballot box. “I know for sure, last year, the fact that the House wouldn’t even take up the farm bill was very much an issue in (Democrats) winning some Senate races. I suspect it would have an impact again if the House can’t get its act together.”

Asked if the Senate would ever agree to drop the Nutrition Title from farm bill in conference, Stabenow reiterated that such legislation would not pass the Senate “nor would the President sign that kind of bill. That isn’t something that has the support as an approach.” Doing so, she said, would end the coalition “between urban and rural communities that has allowed us to have an agriculture and food policy for the country that is broadly supported. It would be a major on policy and a major mistake on getting the bill done.”

Stabenow also said it was ironic that for those calling for an overhaul of food stamps “without a Nutrition Title, the reforms we’ve put in place to tighten up on fraud and abuse wouldn’t exist. If House members want to continue the possibility of someone winning the lottery and getting food assistance, then don’t support our nutrition bill. If they want to continue to certain fraud happening with retailers – where they are giving people cash for their food stamps so they can turn around and buy drugs – then don’t support our farm bill. If they think students going to college and live with their parents and technically have zero income and qualify for food assistance should continue, then don’t support our farm bill.

“But if you want reform, if you want to be able to cut down on waste, fraud and abuse, it won’t happen unless we pass (the Senate’s) Nutrition Title.”

Queried on the desire of some lawmakers in the House calling for some $135 billion in nutrition program cuts, Stabenow said that would not happen. “I’m sure that would have bipartisan opposition in the Senate.”

Stabenow also called out the Republicans for vocal support of food banks while calling for drastic cuts in nutrition program funding. The banks “are funded through the Nutrition Title. It’s not just SNAP, it’s food banks, job training for people getting food help, it’s nutrition education so families are able to make wiser decisions with very limited money so their children can get nutritious meals and we can tackle long-term health costs from childhood obesity. The Nutrition Title is much broader than only a fight about SNAP.”

Near the end of the call, Stabenow picked up the pompoms while giving House leadership another push. “If we’re going to have a middle class in this country, we’ve got to grow things and make things. That’s what we do. Then, we add value to it, market it, sell it, advertise, it, trade it – all kinds of things. But you’ve got to grow something and make something.

“In rural America, that’s what they do. Everyone in those small towns is counting on Congress – specifically, at this point, the House – to understand the important role they play not only in our economy but in our way of life.”