Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow is working to secure a historic increase in conservation spending as part of a climate and infrastructure package, creating a rift with the panel’s top Republican, who says she is prematurely trying to reshape farm bill programs without GOP input.

There's still a lot of uncertainty about the legislative path for climate spending. But Stabenow, D-Mich., wants to include $50 billion in new conservation funding over 10 years in a package that Democrats may try to pass through the budget reconciliation process, assuming it's not part of an infrastructure deal with Republicans. 

By comparison, the 2018 farm bill authorized $60 billion in total conservation funding over 10 years, with much of that front-loaded into the first five years.

“I'm pushing for $50 billion more for USDA traditional conservation programs, because the White House's proposal (for $1 billion in new conservation spending) isn’t anywhere near enough,” Stabenow said during a recent Farm Journal Foundation webinar. “We have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to expand these programs and build farm bill baseline at the same time.”

Stabenow also wants to increase funding for agricultural research but hasn’t said how much funding she would seek in that area. Biden’s American Jobs Plan “calls for more than $110 billion for research across the federal government, and climate-smart agricultural research needs to be included,” Stabenow said.

Debbie Stabenow

Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

Talking to reporters after a committee meeting last week, Stabenow assured Sen. John Boozman, the Ag Committee's top Republican, that the 2023 farm bill would be written by the committee. But Boozman, R-Ark., suggested the conservation spending increase Stabenow wants would amount to a “massive” change in farm policy without any input from Republicans or most Democrats.

“The problem is we have a situation where we're getting locked into, or potentially getting locked into, significant spending,” Boozman said in a subsequent interview with Agri-Pulse.

If Democrats decide to move the legislation through the budget reconciliation process, they won’t need any Republican votes in the Senate; if all 50 Democrats back the measure, Vice President Kamala Harris would cast the tiebreaking vote. Under regular Senate procedures, it would take 60 votes to pass the legislation, which means at least 10 GOP senators would have to vote for it.

A longtime lobbyist who supports the increase in conservation spending said that it shouldn’t be that controversial, because it creates a new funding source for the next farm bill and that the committee would have control of how the money is used.

"You can fix and tweak the policy all you care to in 2023, but the only real chance to get more money for agriculture to do a major campaign to get as far as possible to net zero (on ag carbon emissions) is now," said Ferd Hoefner, a consultant and former policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

But Boozman stresses that he has “no idea” what Stabenow has in mind for the extra money. “The problem is that we’re not having a discussion of any of this, just numbers. Why not $75 billion? Why not $30 billion? Who knows. They’re just numbers that somebody has come up with,” he said. 

One of his concerns would be the amount of funding that could be used for land-idling programs like the Conservation Reserve Program, which takes land out of production for at least 10 years under current rules. "I do know that if you take a significant amount of land out of production, a discussion needs to be had about" the potential impact on U.S. export markets, he said. 

USDA is currently trying to enroll 4 million more acres in CRP by increasing payment rates and financial incentives.

Boozman also says he has concerns with the potential tax increases that Democrats would use to pay for the infrastructure package. Biden proposed to increase the corporate tax rate, tax all capital gains at death and to restrict the use of like-kind exchanges to defer taxes on real estate sales.

“There’s tremendous ramifications with this,” Boozman said of the potential revenue sources.

John Boozman

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.

A coalition that includes several major environmental groups as well as a few farm groups, including the National Farmers Union and National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, signed a letter to congressional leaders on Tuesday that calls for spending $200 billion on "farm bill conservation, research, renewable energy, energy efficiency, forestry, and regional food system and supply chain resilience programs, and should be in addition to the agriculture, forestry, and rural-related elements already contained in the President’s American Jobs Plan."

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But most farm groups have stayed out of the fray so far. The Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, which includes major farm and commodity groups, supports more funding for conservation programs and some form of payments to farmers who can’t qualify for carbon credits on conservation practices they’re already using.

However, the coalition hasn’t proposed a specific amount of funding. FACA’s founding members include the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives as well as NFU.

“It’s important not to become the soccer ball when the big dogs want to have a soccer game,” said AFBF Executive Vice President Dale Moore.

Moore, who was a legislative director on the House Agriculture Committee during a partisan fight over what became the 1996 farm bill, expressed confidence that Stabenow and Boozman would eventually get back to working together when it comes to writing a new farm bill, which is due in 2023.

"I strongly suspect that they are going to figure things out, and will probably share with us what they feel like we need to know, and right now I don't get the impression they feel like we need to know exactly where they're going to be," he said. 

Senate Republicans who are negotiating with the White House on an infrastructure package haven’t given up on reaching a deal, at least not publicly. Republicans initially offered to spend about $600 billion. The White House countered last Friday with a $1.7 trillion proposal, which Republicans quickly rejected.

Republicans expect to have a new proposal ready by Thursday worth close to $1 trillion. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., told reporters Tuesday there are still major disagreements with the White House over what should be included in the bill beyond traditional forms of infrastructure, as well as how to pay for it.

Republicans refuse to consider changes in the 2017 tax law and say unspent COVID-19 relief funding should be redirected toward infrastructure.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., remains a major wild card for Democrats. He told reporters Tuesday he thought there had been an agreement to handle traditional infrastructure spending in separate legislation. Manchin also expressed skepticism about one of Biden's top priorities, $174 billion in spending on electric vehicles and charging stations.

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