House Speaker Kevin McCarthy expressed confidence Tuesday that a new farm bill would pass this year but also suggested Republicans will review work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a hot-button issue that could risk the loss of Democratic support.

Talking to reporters at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, California, McCarthy answered “yes, yes” when asked if a farm bill would pass this year with Democratic support.

McCarthy didn’t provide a timetable for moving the legislation. Portions of the 2018 farm bill expire as soon as Sept. 30.

But he said it was important to see “continual improvement” in nutrition assistance programs, which account for about 80% of farm bill spending.

“You’ve got work requirements, and then you want to look, are they working? How do you help people to be able to get the job and be able to move upward? … People want to have help. We want to provide that,” he said.

In a letter to President Joe Biden last week, five hard-line GOP conservatives said “work requirements for able-bodied adults promote community engagement and a transition to self-sufficiency.” 

In 2018, Republicans won the initial House passage of a farm bill that would have increased the number of adults subject to work requirements to include people in their 50s and parents of children over the age of 6. But the provision was later scrapped in the face of stiff Senate opposition.

McCarthy emphasized the importance of the farm bill to the fruit, vegetable and nut crops that are the staple of California agriculture, citing funding for research, defense against pests and promotion of foreign market development.

“We will look at areas that specialty crops need,” he said.

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McCarthy once again ruled out taking up ag labor reform until the U.S.-Mexico border is secure. Asked specifically about the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which has died at the end of the last two sessions of Congress, he said, “once we get the border solved, we can move forward there.”

McCarthy also said Republicans would push for trade agreements that remove barriers to U.S. exports, but notably used the term “fair trade” rather than “free trade.” 

“We want to have fair trade. America's opened up our shelves for competition. Other countries should open up their shelves, so our products can go there. I believe if you have a fair agreement, America will always win. Our farmers are innovative, the quality of our product is better,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy also expressed frustration with California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to litigate Trump-era biological opinions that protect endangered species like the Delta smelt. The reversal disrupted water supply deliveries to farms in the San Joaquin Valley.

“Gavin Newsom will pick fish over people,” McCarthy said.

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