House budget battle continues, from Farm Bill to healthcare, abortion, weapons systems, etc.

By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 18 - Displaying both remarkable stamina and uncompromising stubbornness, the House debate over GOP-proposed budget cuts for the current fiscal year dragged on into a fourth day Friday. In one example of the range of issues, at high noon Friday Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wisc., switched without missing a beat from urging repeal of the 2008 Farm Bill to avoid paying $150 million to Brazilian cotton producers to scrapping two unneeded Defense Department weapons systems.

Making clear that lots of work remains to be done, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said at 2 PM that with “80 some hours of discussion” completed, “we still have 18 hours of debate and 103 amendments to go.” He said he hopes the debate can be completed this evening if members are “concise and expeditious.”

 Together we can feed the Bees

Showing that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, opened a Pandora's box by allowing an open amendment process, Kind's attack on the cotton subsidy deal was supported by Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. Echoing Republican amendments aimed at defunding the administration's healthcare reform, Kind's amendment states that “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to provide payments (or to pay the salaries and expenses of personnel to provide payments) to the Brazil Cotton Institute.”

Kind insisted that instead of paying off Brazilian cotton agribusiness, Congress needs to tackle “comprehensive Farm Bill reform.” Opposing Kind's amendment, Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., was equally insistent, saying that the $150 million avoids having Brazil impose $829 million in WTO-approved retaliatory tariffs. He said the payment avoids a trade war and will only be have to be paid until the U.S. cotton program is rewritten in the 2012 Farm Bill to comply with international trade rules.

House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas, R-Okla., weighed in on the cotton subsidy issue too. In an example of a Republican defending an Obama administration action, Lucas said “this transfer of funds was established as part of an agreement negotiated between the U.S. and the Brazilian governments.” He said passing the Kind amendment would put the U.S. “in violation of the agreement” and “would invite a trade war.” He said the amendment must be defeated to allow “an opportunity for the U.S. to determine what adjustments to current law are necessary as a part of the next Farm Bill to bring the U.S. cotton program into compliance with the WTO ruling.”

Unsurprisingly, House Financial Services Committee Ranking Member Barney Frank, D-Mass., sided with Kind, calling it lunacy to “subsidize Brazilian cotton farmers so we can continue to subsidize American cotton farmers.” Also speaking in favor was Republican Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who said it makes no sense “spending money to subsidize Brazilian agriculture so we can continue to subsidize agriculture here.” He said the amendment would “force us back to the table - it won't spark a trade war, it will simply say, alright, stop subsidizing your own agriculture in a way that violates your trade agreements.”

Also crossing party lines in the confusing Continuing Resolution debate, Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., opposed the Kind amendment, concluding that despite the $150 million problem, “This is an idea we need to address.This is not the place to address it.”

As the debate ranged over the full breadth of federal spending in no logical order, Republicans argued repeatedly in favor of a series of amendments to deny funding for either having the Department of Health and Human Services implement or the IRS enforce the new healthcare law. Republicans called this a basic issue of Constitutional rights, with defunding essential until “Obamacare” can be repealed. In response, Democrats argued passionately that blocking funding and enforcement would eliminate popular reforms such as removing pre-existing condition provisions, removing lifetime caps, and enabling parents to include children on their policies through age 26, “putting insurance companies back in charge.”

In an attempt to find middle ground on budget cutting, Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., offered amendment 552 which would save some $20 billion compared to current spending levels. Calling for “a real bipartisan solution that is more than political theater and actually has a chance of being a viable compromise,” Schrader said that the $61 billion cut from current spending proposed by Republicans “would be a crushing burden on job creation and economic recovery.”

Schrader explained his proposal “requires a 4.7% across-the-board reduction in domestic spending for the remainder of 2011,” with a 1% increase for Defense. He said the resulting $20 billion cut in spending would be “enough to be meaningful with seven months remaining in our fiscal year but not enough to undermine the recovery. It's simple, it's serious and it's real.”

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