By a surprisingly large, bipartisan margin, the House easily defeated the latest attempt by food and candy manufacturers to reduce sugar prices, rejecting an amendment that would have ended domestic marketing controls for the commodity. 

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said the amendment was a "poison pill" that could undermine support for the entire farm bill, putting at risk its reforms to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that are critical to the GOP leadership.

The top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, had expressed confidence that Democrats would help defeat the farm bill amendment despite their opposition to the overall legislation, and he delivered. 

Some 146 Democrats joined 132 Republicans in voting against the amendment as it failed, 137-278. A similar amendment failed in 2013, 206-221, with 95 Republican and 126 Democratic votes against it. 

Peterson, who represents one of the largest sugar-growing districts, said he gave an impassioned plea to fellow Democrats Wednesday morning to vote against the bill, reminding them of his leadership in opposing the overall bill. He said he told them that "the only thing I cared about was sugar and I needed their help."

Conaway said he called in favors from GOP colleagues and credited GOP leaders for also helping defeat the sugar measure. He told reporters that he considered  the amendment an "existential threat" to farm policy because it would have emboldened critics to go after other forms of commodity programs. 

Passage of the overall bill remained under a cloud ahead of that vote because of continued demands from members of the House Freedom Caucus for a separate vote on immigration policy. The chairman of the group of about 30 hard-line conservatives, Mark Meadows, R-N.C., emerged from a closed-door meeting to say that there were more than enough votes to block the farm bill from passing on Friday. 

Meadows would not say how many members of the group were holding out on the farm bill for a commitment from the GOP leadership to vote on an immigration bill sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.

“At this point we are not able to convince any of our members to go from 'no' to 'yes' on the farm bill,” Meadows said. “We will have further discussions tonight with leadership, but at this point there is no deal to be made.”

During the meeting, the members talked by phone with the GOP Whip, Steve Scalise, R-La.

Conaway said Thursday night that he still expected a final vote on the bill Friday though he was not part of the discussions with the Freedom Caucus. 

Even as the House was voting Thursday evening, President Donald Trump tweeted support for the bill. “Tomorrow, the House will vote on a strong Farm Bill, which includes work requirements. We must support our Nation’s great farmers!”

The House began debating Thursday afternoon the 31 most controversial amendments, including the proposal to roll back the sugar program and another to phase out commodity program and crop insurance subsidies. 

The sugar measure, sponsored by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., and Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., would have eliminated the domestic marketing allotments that help USDA manage supplies and domestic sugar prices and also reduced the marketing loan rates that serve as a floor under the prices earned by farmers. 

The amendment also would have eliminated the “feedstock flexibility” program by which USDA can reduce surpluses by selling sugar at a loss for ethanol production. 

However, the amendment would have left in place USDA’s longstanding authority to restrict imports of low-cost foreign sugar. Producers also would have retained the ability to forfeit sugar to the government. 

“For every job the sugar program protects, we lose three manufacturing jobs," said Foxx.

The program "ensures profits for the connected few at the expense of the many; it’s rooted in supply management economics that were drafted nearly 90 years ago,” she said. 

But Peterson, who represents one of the country's largest sugar-growing regions, argued that the program allows U.S. producers to compete with foreign growers who benefit from lax labor and environmental rules. 

"This is a program that works," he said. 

Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., said the Foxx proposal “goes after American farmers for the benefit of multinational soda and candy companies.”

Sugar producers applauded the bipartisan effort by Conaway and Peterson for defeating the amendment.  Five similar sugar amendments were voted down during the 2014 Farm Bill, but the margins were closer.

“The Foxx-Davis scheme was designed to cut sugar families out of the Farm Bill and reward bad actors abroad,” explained Texas sugarcane farmer Bryce Wilde in a statement.  “It would’ve led to bankruptcies and job loss across the country, and lawmakers were right to defeat it.”

The House also easily rejected an amendment by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., to phase out all agricultural subsidies, 34-380.

Steve Davies and Spencer Chase contributed to this report. 

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