For the second time in five years, House Republicans failed to pass a farm bill, this time because of conservative demands for action on immigration and fierce Democratic opposition to the legislation's food stamp reforms.
Thirty Republicans and every Democrat voted against the bill, which failed, 198-213, bringing cheers from the Democratic side of the chamber.
The GOP opponents included the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus and members of the hard-line conservative group who decided to use their votes on the farm bill as leverage to get a vote on a sweeping immigration measure sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. Some moderate Republicans also voted against the measure, as expected.
After the vote, Republicans moved to postpone a vote to reconsider the bill, giving the GOP leadership time to plan their next steps and possibly force another vote on the legislation. House Speaker Paul Ryan, for whom the farm bill is a top priority, was one of the 30 "no" votes, but that allowed him to make a motion to have it reconsidered later.
Under the chamber's rules, the House has two legislative days to vote on the motion to reconsider the farm bill. But GOP leaders could sidestep that requirement by bringing the bill back to the floor as a new piece of legislation with a "closed" rule that would prevent any amendments from being considered, said a congressional aide familiar with the options being considered. That maneuver would give the leadership time to win over some of the Republicans who voted against the bill Friday.
Oklahoma Republican Frank Lucas, who chaired the House Agriculture Committee when the farm bill went down on the House floor in 2013, said the panel once again "got caught up in an inter-family food fight over policy."
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The vote was a sharp rebuke to Ryan, who was using the farm bill to carry out a long-time priority, reforming the welfare system to move low-income unemployed people into jobs. The bill would expand work requirements for able-bodied adults who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and also lower income eligibility limits in most states.
The outcome was also a major setback for House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, who forced the bill through his committee over strong Democratic objections. Conaway had successfully protected farm programs from cuts by soundly defeating an amendment that would have rolled back sugar policy and by successfully lobbying the Rules Committee to block votes on other amendments that could have been approved.
He was largely a bystander during the House floor drama Friday morning, unable to save his bill, as Ryan, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and GOP Whip Steve Scalise huddled with members of the Freedom Caucus on an issue, immigration, over which Conaway has no jurisdiction.
As he left the chamber after the vote Conaway would only say "it's disappointing."
He later issued a statement, saying: “We experienced a setback today after a streak of victories all week. We may be down, but we are not out. We will deliver a strong, new farm bill on time as the President of the United States has called on us to do. Our nation’s farmers and ranchers and rural America deserve nothing less.”
Some members of the Freedom Caucus continued to demand that the House address immigration reform before committing to support the farm bill. Lawmakers said GOP leaders promised a vote in June on the Goodlatte bill, which conservatives believe will block action on a rival measure that legalize Dreamers, immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children.
"We want this immigration issue dealt with, and unfortunately the farm bill came at the wrong time," said Rep. Scott Perry, a Freedom Caucus member from Pennsylvania. "We’ve been asking for months and months and we’ve been given assurances that it would be dealt with." Asked what "dealt with" entails, Perry said, "Get it on the floor for a vote," he said, referring to the Goodlatte bill which would increase border security, make E-verify mandatory and replace the H-2A visa program for farmworkers.
Ohio Republican Jim Jordan, a former chairman of the Freedom Caucus, said that the House needs "to get a resolution to immigration that’s consistent with the mandate of the election. That’s all this was about."
"Some members have concerns with the farm bill, but that wasn’t my main focus," he added. "My main focus is making sure that we do immigration policy right."
Democrats called the SNAP reforms cruel and unworkable, and the House Agriculture's Committee's ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson, helped his colleagues unite against the legislation, although he acknowledged there were merits in some of the GOP proposals.
Peterson said after the vote that Republicans will have to rework the bill's nutrition title if they want Democratic support.
"The ball is in their court," Peterson said.
Asked whether Republicans are willing to bend on SNAP, he said, “I have no idea.” Peterson and Conaway had not spoken for five weeks until Conaway thanked Peterson yesterday for gathering Democratic votes to defeat an amendment that would have made major changes in the U.S. sugar program.
Farm groups expressed dismay at the House's failure to pass the bill.
“We are already starting to hear from farmers across the nation, many of whom are perplexed and outraged at this morning’s vote," said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. "They are facing very real financial challenges. We call on all members of Congress not to use farmers and ranchers as pawns in a political game."
The president of the American Soybean Association, Iowa farmer John Heisdorffer, said, "Plain and simple: the farm bill matters. U.S. soybean growers and everyone involved in agriculture depend on this vital piece of legislation."
Earlier Friday morning, the House voted along party lines, 238-173, to approve an amendment sponsored by Jim Banks, R-Ind., that would repeal the "Waters of the United States" rule that the Obama administration implemented in 2013 to re-define the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.
A second amendment introduced by Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., to allow interstate traffic of unpasteurized milk and milk products between states that allow the distribution of those products for direct human consumption, failed 331-79.
An amendment sponsored by Dave Brat, R-Va., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., to overhaul commodity checkoff programs was pulled from consideration before it could be debated.
(This story was updated to include additional comment.)
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