The House took a step Wednesday toward beginning formal negotiations with the Senate over a new farm bill and overwhelmingly voted in favor of including permanent funding for USDA efforts to combat animal diseases. 

The House approved by unanimous consent a motion to go to conference with the Senate, and House leaders later named the House members of the conference committee that will negotiate with the Senate.

The Senate vote to go to conference with the House on farm the bill is expected next week, at which time the seven Senate negotiators will be announced. They are expected to include Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said it is possible that the conference committee could meet for the first time next week before the House breaks for its August recess. 

He continued to express optimism that the conference committee can finish its work by Sept. 30, when many programs in the 2014 farm bill expire. 

The chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan issued a joint statement welcoming the House move to begin the negotiations:

“In order to be successful in passing a final bill, the conference committee must put politics aside and focus on the needs of our farmers, families, and rural communities. We are eager to go to conference, so we can move quickly to provide certainty for American farmers and families. Rural America is counting on us to get this right.”

The House conferees comprise 13 Republicans and 10 Democrats from the Agriculture Committee and two Republicans and one Democrat from each of eight other committees that have some interest in the legislation. 

The Republican Agriculture Committee representatives in addition to Conaway are Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, Mike Rogers of Alabama, Austin Scott of Georgia, Rick Crawford of Arkansas, Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, Rodney Davis of Illinois, Ted Yoho of Florida, David Rouzer of North Carolina, Roger Marshall of Kansas and Jodey Arrington of Texas. 

The Democratic Agriculture Committee representatives are ranking member Collin Peterson of Minnesota, David Scott of Georgia, Jim Costa of California, Tim Walz of Minnesota, Marcia Fudge of Ohio, Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, Filemon Vela of Texas, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, Ann Kuster of New Hampshire and Tom O’Halleran of Arizona. 

Additional Agriculture Committee members were included among the House conferees as representatives of other committees: Republicans James Comer of Kentucky, Ralph Abraham of Louisiana, Neal Dunn of Florida, Jeff Denham of California and Bob Gibbs of Ohio; and Democrats Alma Adams of North Carolina, Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Stacey Plaskett, the delegate from the Virgin Islands.

The House also voted 392-20 to approve a Democratic motion to instruct the House conferees to support mandatory funding for USDA’s animal health laboratory network, animal disease preparedness and response program and a national animal vaccine bank. 

The programs would get $450 million in mandatory funding over five years in the House-passed farm bill. The Senate version only authorizes funding for the programs, leaving it up to congressional appropriators to decide the annual amounts. 

Peterson told the House that mandatory funding would “provide … certainty for both the farms and the consumers and the people who deal with this at the regulatory level.” 

The vote doesn’t tie the hands of House negotiators but could strengthen their positions during talks with the Senate. 

Groups representing beef, pork, turkey and egg producers, together with the American Veterinary Medical Association and National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, applauded the House vote. "The animal agriculture industry stands ready to work with House and Senate conferees on a final farm bill that funds these vital programs at a level adequate to protect America’s farmers and ranchers, the nation’s food supply and the U.S. economy," the groups said in a joint statement.