Prospects for passing farm bill fixes this week sought by cotton and dairy producers dimmed as House Republicans struggled to gather support for a disaster aid bill, and a top Senate Democrat raised objections to the agriculture measures.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, told Agri-Pulse Tuesday afternoon there were “positive negotiations going on,” but she said the dairy provision was insufficient because it didn't address dairy producers' concerns about the Margin Protection Program.
She said she didn’t think the issues could get settled before the upcoming Christmas week break. “This is not going to move this week,” she said.
The House bill, which also includes $81 billion in disaster assistance, would make cotton eligible for the Price Loss Coverage and lift a cap on the Livestock Gross Margin (LGM) insurance program to help dairy producers.
GOP leaders hoped to attach the disaster aid to a stopgap funding bill needed to keep the government running after Friday, but they reportedly shifted strategy late Tuesday amid opposition to the plan.
Stabenow said that expanding LGM didn’t do enough for dairy producers, and she also objected to offsetting the cost of that provision by expanding a program for preventing duplicative benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which would save an estimated $579 million, a Senate aide said.
Stabenow and other senators are working on an alternative proposal similar to provisions included in the Senate’s fiscal 2018 agricultural appropriations bill. The bill would also make cotton eligible for PLC - but wouldn’t go as far as the industry wants - and would overhaul dairy’s Margin Protection Program to make it more attractive to producers.
“We can do better than what’s in the House bill, and I don’t support using (savings) from SNAP,” Stabenow said in an interview. “Anything that we’re going to be doing on SNAP needs to be thoughtfully looked at. There’s no way that SNAP dollars should be used to offset any part” of the year-end bill.
Stabenow and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, blocked an effort to use the fiscal 2017 omnibus spending bill to make cotton eligible for PLC unless the legislation also overhauled MPP.
A source familiar with the Senate’s deliberations also said its plan could include a provision making milk eligible for crop revenue insurance, which comes with more benefits than LGM. Asked whether the Senate would seek to address that issue, Stabenow said, “We’re working on a number of things. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Sales of LGM coverage to dairy producers have been periodically halted because of the legal underwriting limit. Under existing law, USDA can spend just $20 million a year for subsidies and administrative and operating costs for all livestock insurance products.
The cost of the cotton provision in the House bill would be offset by re-allocating “generic” base acres, former cotton base acres, and by making cotton growers who participate in PLC ineligible for the Stacked Income Protection Plan (STAX) insurance program, which was created by the 2014 farm bill as an alternative to direct commodity subsidies.
The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said he knew that Senate Democrats could insist on adding MPP changes to the stopgap funding bill. “That's the process of legislating,” he said. “Obviously this is not the last bite at the apple for MPP. I’ve got a farm bill to do next year.”
House Agriculture's ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, said he supported the House provisions.
(Updated 6 a.m. Wednesday with chances for proposals fading.)