House Republicans were arguing not long ago that a deal on the debt ceiling could make it easier to pass a farm bill. Instead, many conservatives are angry over the debt agreement and demanding cuts to nutrition assistance and other programs that could delay the development of a new farm bill and even threaten its passage. 

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., affirmed in February that he intended to see a new farm bill passed before the end of the year with bipartisan support. But the conservatives’ outrage over the debt ceiling agreement, which is expected to increase, not reduce, the number of people getting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, and new demands for deep cuts in domestic spending will further test McCarthy’s command of the GOP conference heading into the farm bill debate. 

That anger poses several challenges for farm bill writers: Getting Democratic support for the bill would mean SNAP can’t be cut, but leaving SNAP alone could risk inflaming conservatives further. Trying to pass a GOP-only bill wouldn't be easy either, since the GOP majority is so thin that any five Republicans could vote with Democrats to scuttle the legislation. 

At the very least, McCarthy will be under pressure to allow a wide array of amendments to be considered that, if adopted, could undermine support for the legislation. That’s happened in the past: A farm bill was defeated on the House floor in 2013 after a GOP SNAP amendment drove away Democratic support.

What’s clear for now is some GOP conservatives are still determined to tighten SNAP work requirements. 

“I wouldn’t categorize anything as a red line issue at this stage of the game, but we are going to try to ratchet up the work requirements every chance we get,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., told Agri-Pulse. “The farm bill is one of those opportunities, and I hope we’re able to get some of those policy reforms included in the legislation.” 

The debt ceiling bill did expand the work requirements to age 54 from the current maximum age of 49, but it also provided new exemptions for veterans, people who are homeless, and adults up to 24 who have left the foster-care system. Because of the exemptions, CBO estimates there will be an average of 78,000 additional people getting SNAP benefits each month as a result of the debt bill.

Texas GOP Rep. Chip Roy, the policy director for the House Freedom Caucus and a member of the Rules Committee, which decides what amendments get debated on the floor, denounced the debt bill as a betrayal to conservatives. He told Agri-Pulse it was too early to say whether conservatives would seek cuts to SNAP in the farm bill, but he reiterated his displeasure with the outcome of the debt agreement.

“When you just bloated up SNAP while you’re pretending that you actually save taxpayers money, that’s a problem,” Roy said.

Meanwhile, 14 members of the Republican Study Committee have signed onto a budget plan, released last week, that calls for gutting not just SNAP but commodity programs and crop insurance as well.

One longtime GOP lobbyist and Capitol Hill veteran says conservative demands could make it difficult, if not impossible, for McCarthy to put a bipartisan farm bill on the House floor. If he does do that, he risks being ousted as speaker, said the lobbyist, who asked not to be identified. 

“In the old days, you persuaded people with a bridge or leadership post or appointment to a committee or something like that. I don't think that works very well for these guys,” the lobbyist said of the conservatives angry over the debt agreement. 

“They thought they had a deal … and they are really hot. And I don't see that settling down anytime soon.”

But another veteran lobbyist with Republican ties, Randy Russell, doesn’t think McCarthy will have any choice but to put a bipartisan measure on the House floor. 

In 2018, the House GOP majority successfully passed a partisan farm bill that included SNAP cuts that angered Democrats. But this time, the Republican majority is so slim that a GOP-only bill is unlikely to get enough votes to pass the House, Russell told Agri-Pulse. Republicans currently control the House 222-212, with one vacancy in a Democratic-leaning district. 

“I think there are those in the Republican caucus, and there's probably some in the Democratic caucus, that aren't going to vote for the farm bill regardless of what it says, for various reasons,” Russell said. 

But Russell also warned that there will likely be a relatively open amendment process when the bill is on the House floor, something that didn’t happen in 2018, when the GOP leadership worked with the Ag Committee to strictly limit the number and type of amendments that were debated on the floor. For example, the only amendment targeting crop insurance or commodity programs was so broad — it would have phased out all commodity programs and crop insurance subsidies — that it had no chance of getting adopted.

“We're going to have more of what I would call a modified open rule, where if you want to offer an amendment to a given title, you will have that opportunity,” Russell said. “And we're all going to have to be ready to defend the various programs that are in the committee-reported bill.”

Although the GOP hardliners have pushed for an open amendment process on bills, one veteran lawmaker who asked not to be identified said that would backfire on them when it comes to the farm bill, because they likely won't have the votes to get their amendments adopted. 

But the RSC budget proposal provides some clues as to what aspects of the farm bill could be targeted with amendments. The plan includes proposals to eliminate the Price Loss Coverage and Agriculture Risk Coverage for row crop farmers, cutting premium subsidies for crop insurance, killing programs for dairy and sugar producers and banning new enrollments in the Conservation Reserve Program and Conservation Stewardship Program. 

The plan also would require USDA to get congressional approval before making any payments from the Commodity Credit Corp. account. 

One common theme in the farm-related budget proposals is the idea that wealthy farmers get a large share of the benefit. 

The RSC plan also proposes to convert SNAP from a federally run program into block grants that would give states more control over how benefits are dispensed and require them to share in the cost. 

Among the 14 Republicans who signed the RSC plan are Chairman Kevin Hern of Oklahoma; former House Ag Committee member Michael Cloud, who represents a farming and ranching region in south Texas; and August Pfluger, whose west Texas seat was once held by Mike Conaway, who chaired House Ag in 2018. 

Other RSC members who didn't sign the budget provided comments praising the overall plan, but not specific elements. Those included House Ag members Randy Feenstra of Iowa, Doug LeMalfa of California and David Rouzer of North Carolina. Their comments did not address the farm bill proposals. 

House Ag Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., continues to express confidence that the farm bill will ultimately have bipartisan support. But he and McCarthy have also indicated that the SNAP work provisions would be revisited. 

“I’ve had some members come up to me and say, 'OK, we’re done with the [farm bill’s] nutrition title.' I said, 'No, we’re not,'” Thompson told reporters. 

Glenn_Thompson_GT_WW23.jpgHouse Ag Chair Glenn "GT" Thompson, R-Pa.

He argues that the new exemptions from work requirements unfairly prevent the affected groups from being eligible for SNAP employment and training programs. “I think veterans should be insulted that somehow the administration thought that they don’t want to work,” Thompson said. “A lot of them are new, coming back, and they want to find their place in society, right?”

In any case, a farm bill won’t come to the House or Senate floor before the fall at the earliest, and the timing could be affected by a looming showdown between the two chambers over funding the government for fiscal 2024, which starts Oct. 1. 

Under pressure from the conservatives angry over the debt ceiling bill, the House GOP is proposing deep cuts in domestic spending programs for FY24, far below the caps set in the debt ceiling agreement, while the Democratic-controlled Senate plans to fund the 12 spending bills in line with the caps.

Because the spending bills are unlikely to be completed before the fiscal year starts Oct. 1, Congress must pass a continuing resolution by Sept. 30 to avoid a partial government shutdown. And if lawmakers can’t reach an agreement on FY24 spending by Jan. 1, the debt ceiling bill requires defense and domestic spending be cut by 1% across the board. 

“These are going to be extremely difficult negotiations as we get to September 30,” said Russell. “We'll have to see how that all plays out. And I think that's got that has to get behind us really before we're going to get very far on the farm bill.”

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