WASHINGTON, August 2, 2012 -The completion of a new, five-year food and farm bill ‑ already on a path full of political potholes – got side-tracked again last night in the U.S. House of Representatives. Instead, lawmakers are now focusing on trying to approve a stand-alone disaster aid package for livestock and nursery crops before they leave for their August recess.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., met with ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D- Mich., and ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kans., Tuesday morning to discuss disaster aid and options for advancing the FARRM bill that passed out of the House Ag Committee on July 12.

“We all agreed that the faster we can do drought assistance, the better off we are,” explained Roberts after the meeting. “We don’t want that held up for the entire month of August and then only have 8 days to work with it in September.”

But there was no clear resolution on how to handle the farm bill, even though Roberts expressed confidence that there is still time this year to finish. “It could be during the lame duck (session of Congress), but we’re still in the midst of how we would do it and what would be in the bill. And that was not resolved. We were at least talking about contingencies and what we would do.”

House GOP leaders had planned to advance a one-year extension of the 2008 farm bill, including disaster aid, after consideration by the House Rules Committee last night. By some accounts, that package could have been used to start conferencing with the Senate’s five-year version of the farm bill- if approved by the full House. But with almost all major farm and conservation groups opposed to a one-year extension, and Republicans split, GOP leaders couldn’t find enough votes to win approval within their own caucus. Just as the House Committee on Rules planned to consider the bill, H.R. 6228, on Tuesday, it was abruptly pulled from their schedule.

“My priority remains to get a five-year farm bill on the books and put those policies in place. But the most pressing business before us is to provide disaster assistance to those producers impacted by the drought conditions who are currently exposed,” Lucas said in a statement issued last night. The disaster package will cost about $383 million over 10 years, with $639 million in spending offsets coming out of the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program for a net reduction of $256 million over 10 years.

Asked about how events unfolded, Peterson said Tuesday night that he “expected this to happen.” He predicted the disaster package to be considered on Thursday will not pass before recess, but remained optimistic for moving a full five-year package to conference in September, “if we can get it negotiated.”

“I think we have the votes,” he insisted. “I’ve been making a lot of progress with the Democrats, and we’re in better shape than we thought.” He noted that, if the end of September arrives without a farm bill or an extension, Congress would have to complete a disaster bill.

 “In my opinion, the whole one-year extension was designed to kill the farm bill,” Peterson said, noting that House Republicans will return home during the August recess and “catch hell” after not passing a disaster bill or a farm bill this week.

Regarding the use of conservation programs as the offset to pay for disaster programs, Peterson said, “I’m not wild about that,” although he said he had not seen the language in the package.

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) Policy Director Ferd Hoefner agreed, noting that “funding a short-term disaster package by cutting conservation programs would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face. NSAC would vigorously oppose a stand-alone disaster package funded through cuts to farm conservation,” Hoefner continued. “We are not opposed to a disaster assistance bill, provided farm conservation funding is not raided in the process.”

Peterson said he requested the package include non-insured specialty crops as well. Lucas “seemed inclined to do that,” he noted.

“I’d like to conferee this bill over August even if we don’t have this officially set up,” Peterson said, indicating that he and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., “think we should have this ready” despite obstacles from House leadership.

Regarding continuing negotiations to get a five-year package on the floor and to conference in September, Lucas told Agri-Pulse Tuesday night that “we are negotiating about negotiating,” calling a new farm bill “inevitable.”

“The House is expected to consider a disaster assistance package on Thursday and I encourage my colleagues to support it,” Lucas said in his statement.  “Beyond that, I will continue to work with my leadership, Ranking Member Peterson and our members to determine the best path forward. The challenges our farmers and ranchers are currently facing only underscores how important it is that we complete a five-year farm bill this year.”


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