Farm bill negotiators are struggling to work out deals on forestry regulations, commodity program eligibility rules and other issues with a goal of finalizing an agreement that Congress can vote on before adjourning in December. 

“We’re getting close,” House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said Friday. “Momentum is building to get this done, so I’m encouraged.”

Conaway said the House committee's top Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, had joined him in making the most recent proposals to settle disputes with their Senate counterparts. "This is now a House offer, not just a Conaway offer," Conaway said.

Conaway said he was gearing up to pitch the final bill to his fellow Republicans, who will lose control of the House in January. The final legislation won't include the tighter work requirements for food stamp recipients that had been a priority for many conservatives. 

“I'm going to do the best sales job to make sure my guys know the binary choice that we face and that a farm bill done by a Pelosi-led House of Representatives will not be as good as the one we’ll have an opportunity to vote on this time,” Conaway told Agri-Pulse, referring to Nancy Pelosi, who expects to be elected House speaker.

Asked whether GOP leaders would require the bill to have the support of a majority of Republicans, an informal requirement known as the "Hastert rule" for a former House speaker, Conaway indicated that his only goal was to get 218 votes, a majority of the House. "I'd love to have the Hastert rule apply, but I'm going to get to 218," Conaway said.

Sources said Friday that the nutrition title was largely settled but that the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, has raised concerns about some provisions on the Conservation Stewardship Program, which the House-passed bill would have eliminated, and in the forestry title. 

One congressional source familiar with the negotiations said that Congress would largely leave it to the Trump administration to make it harder for states to get waivers from the work requirements on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. USDA has developed a proposed rule on the waiver rules that remains under review by the Office of Management and Budget. The House-passed bill would extend the work requirements to able-bodied people in their 50s and parents of children older than 6. 

Conaway declined to discuss details of the remaining disputes, but he indicated that forestry provisions were still up in the air, and he said he has been pushing back against efforts to tighten farm bill eligibility rules. 

The Senate version of the bill would lower the earnings limit for commodity programs from $900,000 in adjusted gross income under current law to $700,000. The bill also would limit farms to having one manager who can qualify for payments. The House-passed bill, on the other hand, would loosen eligibility rules, expanding the number of extended family members who could qualify for subsidies. 

“Now is the wrong time to hurt Title One for whatever reason,” he said, referring to commodity programs. ”I’m pushing back aggressively. The good news is that I’ve got some Senate colleagues who agree with me on that.”

Conaway said the forestry issue was especially important in light of the California wildfires. The House bill includes provisions of the House-passed Resilient Federal Forests Act, opposed by environmentalists, to expedite approvals for logging in the national forests through the use of “categorical exclusions.” Projects that could be accelerated include those addressing insect and disease infestation, reducing hazardous fuel loads, protecting municipal water sources and improving or enhancing critical habitat.

Separately, Peterson told reporters Friday that the goal was to finalize an agreement by Monday. But he said that Stabenow has “got leverage and she’s using it.” He was referring to the fact that Conaway’s leverage has weakened since the Democrats won control of the House in the next Congress. 

Peterson, who will take over the chairmanship of the House committee in January, met with Democratic colleagues on the panel Friday but declined to talk about the discussion. 

For more news, go to: