Following a 90-8 bipartisan vote to proceed with the Senate farm bill debate, there was guarded optimism the legislation would have a relatively smooth ride through the chamber. Such optimism didn’t last long.
Those who hoped the Senate farm bill debate would avoid common partisan intransigence, regional strife and a rash of amendments unrelated to the legislation are surely disappointed. Early in the process strife between political parties has already arisen, southern lawmakers remain dissatisfied with how proposed programs treat rice and peanuts, and non-agriculture amendments threaten to gum up the system.
Still, during a Wednesday morning press conference, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, largely preferred to ignore the gathering storm clouds.
“We have two very important amendments we’re in the process of discussing.”
One amendment deals with U.S. sugar quotas. The second, offered by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, would “cut block grant food assistance under the nutrition program.”
Earlier, Paul had stalled the farm bill by offering an amendment to cut off U.S. aid to Pakistan. This would be in retaliation for Pakistan’s conviction and incarceration of the doctor who surreptitiously aided U.S. forces in finding Osama Bin Laden.
“We intend then to move forward on other amendments if we’re unable to do unanimous consent, which we’ll attempt to do again this morning,” said Stabenow. “Then, we’ll move forward on the path that (Majority Leader Nevada Sen. Harry) Reid has set out that allows us, when there’s an objection, to move ahead and vote on amendments.
“As we’re doing that we’re also putting together the final universe of amendments we’ll be addressing. So, there’s been good movement in putting that together overnight and this morning.”
Stabenow said it would be “a very sad day if, instead of passing this (bill), we revert back to the ag policies of the 1940s and extend the status quo. We’d be extending subsidies we all agree should be eliminated. We’d be going back to the era of paying farmers for things they don’t plant. That makes absolutely no sense.”
The lengthy list of amendments already attached to the farm bill – at last count 220-plus – is not unusual, insisted Stabenow. “We had 100 amendments filed in the committee process. We were able to negotiate and get that down to 44 that were accepted by the committee on a bipartisan basis. … I’m very confident that we can get the number down.”
Stabenow was reticent to agree with amendments being offered regarding the Clean Water Act and EPA oversight. The EPA “is not under the jurisdiction of the USDA or the (Senate Agriculture) Committee and involves a wider discussion with people. That will be taking place. … I’d urge people … not to get too far afield here and keep this to relevant amendments.”
She also tried to soften comments made by Reid on his growing frustration with the lack of movement on the farm bill.
Reid, said Stabenow, “has many things on his plate. The procedural obstacles and objections that don’t let us move forward in the way that the majority of us would like to do in the Senate create a situation for him where he has to focus on procedural motions more than he’d like to.
“I’m very confident we’ll get this done. For those who oppose reform and like the status quo, they’ll drag their feet. For those who don’t care about agricultural policy and have amendments that aren’t germane and don’t intend to vote for the bill in the end anyway, they’ll look for the opportunity to bring forward their issue.
“But we’re just getting started. We’re in a spot where we’re negotiating and moving forward and beginning the discussion on the floor.”
Stabenow also downplayed friction between Democrats and Republicans regarding the introduction of amendments on environmental and labor regulations. “There are always ups and downs, starts and stops. Unfortunately, rather than moving forward amendment by amendment and debating and having votes – our strong preference – we’re in a spot where those who want to obstruct or don’t support what we’re doing have the ability to throw some sand in the gears.
“None of this is surprising, at all.”
As for rice and peanut concerns, Stabenow said all would be taken care of whether “in the Senate or in conference. … We continue to have conversations with our rice and peanut friends to find how we can address their issues. We certainly made significant moves in committee with reference prices for them within our new risk management program. We know they have other concerns.
“I’m very confident that by the end of this process we’ll come to the middle on this. It’s a question of what can be done in the Senate and in conference. But we talk daily and I appreciate their concerns and know that crop insurance, at this point, isn’t effective for them.”