Republican leaders desperate to push a partisan farm bill through the House that overhauls the food stamp program are heading off attempts to cut crop insurance or tighten commodity payment limits.

The House Rules Committee on Wednesday night approved the second of two rules for debating the bill that would allow no votes on crop insurance or commodity programs other than a sugar reform proposal and a sweeping amendment by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., that would phase out all commodity program and crop insurance subsidies. 

Because of its far-reaching nature, the McClintock amendment is far less likely to be adopted than amendments that would reduce crop insurance subsidies in various ways or tighten commodity program tighten limits. 

“With the ag economy the way it is, certainty (for farmers) is important,” Rules committee member Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., told Agri-Pulse.  “It was a priority to keep it (crop insurance) in place.” 

Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said the highest priority for GOP leaders was to preserve the bill’s reforms to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. "We’re still trying to get (SNAP) policy right, not just the spending," he said.

The debate rule, which the House will consider on Thursday, makes in order 31 amendments in addition to the proposal by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., to end the domestic marketing controls for sugar. 

Other amendments on the list include a proposal by Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., that would impose new restrictions on commodity checkoff programs, and a proposal by Mike Rogers, R-Ala., to freeze the Conservation Reserve Program at 24 million acres. An amendment sponsored by Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., would repeal the Obama-era "waters of the United States" rule that re-defined the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. 

Also included in the list is a manager's amendment, prepared by House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, that, among other things, would exempt disabled people from a requirement in the bill for non-elderly SNAP recipients to start documenting their utility bills for calculating benefit eligibility.

One lawmaker from a sugar-growing district said Wednesday that the amendment had a 50-50 chance of being approved. But Conaway expressed optimism that he had the votes to defeat the measure, which would also lower loan rates for sugar and end a program that can force USDA to sell surplus sugar at a loss for conversion into fuel ethanol.

Commodity groups that want to protect checkoff programs sent a letter to lawmakers Wednesday saying Brat's amendment would :impose unnecessary, duplicative and counterproductive burdens." The amendment would ban "practically all research projects done at universities, coordinated projects with public health associations and partnerships with producer education organizations," the letter said. 

Meanwhile, an attempt by some House conservatives to use the farm bill as leverage to get a vote on immigration issue put a cloud over the legislation’s future as lawmakers kicked off floor debate Wednesday. 

Conaway acknowledged that he would need the votes of some of the conservatives to offset the loss of some moderate Republicans on the final vote. Democrats are expected to be united in opposition to the bill because of the bill’s SNAP reforms. 

“I’ve got to pick up enough of the left, enough of the right” to get a majority to pass the bill, Conaway told reporters. 

Members of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus have been demanding a vote on an immigration bill developed by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte to head off a separate effort by Democrats and moderate Republicans to force House action on a bill to legalize the Dreamers, immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children. 

Asked how many Freedom Caucus members would vote for the farm bill if they got a commitment from the GOP leadership on the immigration issue, Meadows would only say, “Enough.” 

Meadows and other members of the group with GOP leaders Wednesday afternoon but did not reach a deal, he said. 

A leadership source said that a substantial number of the Freedom Caucus membership is needed to assure passage of the farm bill.

The floor debate immediately got off to a partisan start Wednesday when lawmakers split along party lines, 229-185, to approve the first of the two debate rules, which provided for consideration of 20 relatively non-controversial amendments. One Democrat voted for the rule, apparently by mistake, and one Republican voted against it. 

Conaway argued that a new farm bill was needed because of the downturn in the farm economy. "Times are not good right now in the Heartland. Our nation’s farmers and ranchers are struggling in the midst of a five-year recession with no end in sight," he said. 

But House Agriculture’s top Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, said the farm bill fails farmers by not increasing reference prices in the Price Loss Coverage program and also “fails our nation’s hungry” through the changes to SNAP. It is “simply not good enough for American farmers, consumers or rural advocates.”

Several of the amendments were later approved Wednesday by voice votes, including measures that: 

  • Allow contracts through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program with drainage districts to provide irrigation or improve water efficiency. (Sponsored by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.)
  • Allow SNAP recipients to use their benefits for multivitamins. (Mike Rogers, R-Ala.)
  • Expand eligibility requirements for USDA loan programs to allow rural hospitals to refinance their debts. (Jodey Arrington, R-Texas)
  • Add chronic wasting disease to USDA’s “high-priority” research and extension initiatives. (Glenn Thompson, R-Pa.) Peterson noted that there are concerns about the disease being spread through farm-raised deer.

Spencer Chase contributed to this report.