Ag leaders confident of farm bill passage

Top Republicans on board with farm bill although livestock groups say without COOL fix they'll remain opposed.

After two and a half years of working on the farm bill, House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) called the final conference package "not only a good farm bill, almost a miraculous farm bill."

Lucas said the bill will go before the House Rules Committee Tuesday afternoon setting up a vote on the House floor Wednesday morning he said. Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) said she's received commitment from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that he'll move the bill "as quickly as possible." The White House has also provided indications it will sign the final package, the leaders concurred.

The 218 votes in the House remains the challenge, as Lucas said he's always known folks at both ends of the spectrum wouldn't support the farm bill. The question remains whether Lucas can create a majority coalition in the middle. He said his gut feeling and reading of colleagues is yes.

"Farm bills have always been done with a coalition of folks in the middle who want to get things done. I think that will be there. I am going to do everything I can to make sure that can happen," Lucas said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning.

House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) who forced a new agreement on dairy policy that doesn't include supply management, threw his support behind final passage. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has also said he'll support the bill.

“The measure will not only save taxpayers approximately $23 billion, it also includes important reforms to both farm and food stamp programs,” Boehner said in a statement issued Monday night. “While I hoped many of these reforms would go further, the status quo is simply unacceptable. I have voted against the last two farm bills because, in my view, they made farm and food stamp policy worse rather than better. This legislation, however, is worthy of the House’s support.”

However, agriculture has its own divisions from livestock groups – most notably the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. and National Pork Producers Council – loudly opposing the bill because it doesn't repeal the mandatory country-of-origin labeling which is a "slap in the face" of every livestock producer, said NCBA president Scott George.

In a call earlier in the morning, George and NPPC president Randy Spronk blamed Senate Democrats and the National Farmers Union for preventing a COOL fix.

George said the livestock industry is standing "shoulder-to-shoulder" in opposition to the bill and NCBA will use all of its resources to defeat the farm bill. He said a "vote for this farm bill is literally a vote for retaliation" in regard to the threatened retaliatory tariffs Canada and Mexico have said they'll put into effect if the WTO does not find the latest COOL law compliant.

George added that they're "confident" they have the votes to derail the farm bill. If they succeed, they would expect the farm bill conferees to rework the bill and fix COOL.

Lucas and Stabenow both defended the final conference report which includes the House language to study the impacts of COOL. Stabenow said the votes "were not there in either body" for a full COOL repeal.

Lucas explained that to be asked by the livestock industry to go and advance a total repeal when language wasn't approved by either chamber with that drastic of language in the original farm bills was too much. "This fight has to be fought at the subcommittee level," he said. "The groundwork hadn't been laid for that [change.]"

In the end, Lucas said ultimately the chairs had to make a decision. "Do we want a farm bill or take an issue that could blow the whole process sky-high?" He said from his perspective, the farm bill had enough good things it needed to be move forward.

Stabenow said the COOL isn't over. The WTO will make a decision on the merits of the case in February, allowing for another chance of an appeal and then an arbitration panel will have to approve any retaliatory actions if they were to come. Lucas and Stabenow said there's time to address COOL legislatively if needed.

The bill includes over $5 billion for permanent livestock disaster assistance, the No. 1 priority for the livestock industry at the start of the farm bill process. Stabenow said she was disappointed the livestock industry couldn't see what a "huge win this bill is for livestock."

George said the disaster assistance acts as a bandaid, but the COOL law essentially ties them to a railway track with the burdens of the extra costs associated with the labeling passed down to producers headed their way.

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