MEMBERS of the House and Senate are away for the August recess, but the farm bill's Sept. 30 expiration date looms.
This summer has brought repeated stumbling blocks in approval of a new farm bill, including the House's failed attempt to pass a comprehensive package that was later followed up with a "farm-only" farm bill that passed along party lines.
In recent weeks, House Republican leaders tried to hash out a nutrition-only bill so both bills could go to conference.
Reports indicate that House Republicans have developed a framework for a stand-alone nutrition bill with $40 billion in cuts over 10 years, nearly double the $20.5 billion that was rejected in the comprehensive bill and much higher than the $4 billion proposed in the Senate version.
CQ Roll Call reported that Rep. Kristin Noem (R., S.D.), who is part of the Republican working group, said they developed six to seven points that House majority leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) will use to write a nutrition bill over the August recess. Noem said the nutrition bill could come up the first week in September.
Noem was careful not to say that there was unanimous support in her caucus, as some see food stamps as an out-of-control entitlement program, while others have a more realistic view of what will be needed to advance a farm bill through the Senate and receive the President's final signature.
During a luncheon with the Agribusiness Club Aug. 1, House Agriculture Committee chair Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) admitted that the nutrition spending level differences between the House and Senate bills may be difficult to conference and may be a "tough bridge to cross to achieve consensus."
No matter if it's $40 billion or $20.5 billion in cuts, when compared to the Senate's $4 billion, "that's a huge difference," he said.
House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) was quick to criticize the $40 billion in cuts. Peterson, who had supported the $20.5 billion in cuts in the initial House proposal by cutting categorical eligibility, said the additional $20 billion in nutrition cuts, "on top of the poison-pill amendments" that brought down the bill in June, "effectively kills any hopes of passing a five-year farm bill this year."
Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) said she had anticipated that the House and Senate could immediately go to conference committee during the August recess. However, she said House leadership is not expected to name conferees until it decides on a nutrition title.
"At this point, the path forward is certainly less clear," Stabenow said.
While conversations with Speaker of the House John Boehner (R., Ohio) indicate that he's willing to see the farm bill through, Cantor is playing "political gamesmanship that is blocking us from getting this done," Stabenow claimed.
Informal discussions between Senate and House agricultural leaders have started and will continue, Stabenow said, including a meeting of committee leaders and their staffs on July 31, but they can't have serious discussions without the full parameters in front of them, most notably the nutrition title.
"We will not be able to go as far as I would like or expected to go in pre-conferencing," Stabenow said.
Last Thursday, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and minority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) named conferees to reconcile differences in the farm bills. They include Sens. Stabenow, Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), Max Baucus (D., Mont.), Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), Michael Bennet (D., Colo.), Thad Cochran (R., Miss.), Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.), John Boozman (R., Ark.) and John Hoeven (R., N.D.).
The House is in session for only nine days in September, and the Senate returns the first week in September for five weeks of work.
"This is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off," Stabenow said.
She said it will be difficult to get any kind of extension through the chambers, especially to continue direct payments, which members have agreed need to be ended but still are an important piece of helping fund future commodity programs.