House defeats farm bill in surprise move

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated what House Speaker John A. Boehner said about the prospects of the farm bill.

Speaker of the House John Boehner told members of the press Thursday that Americans expect Congress to pass immigration reform. (The Washington Post)
June 21, 2013

A broad five-year farm bill went down to a surprise defeat in the House on Thursday when Republican conservatives revolted against the legislation, arguing that it would cost too much, while Democrats defected, saying it would not spend enough on their priorities.

The 234 to 195 vote was the latest rebuke to House GOP leaders, who have struggled to muster enough control of the chamber to pass major legislation. The defeat also bodes ill for legislation on the budget and immigration that is expected to be debated in the House this summer and fall. Senators reached an agreement Thursday to increase funding for border security, a deal that increases the likelihood that the immigration bill will be approved with broad support.

Immigration and the budget are far more complex issues than the farm bill, a measure that both chambers typically pass with bipartisan ease. Not this time.

Senior Republicans accused House Democrats of political gamesmanship, alleging that the Democrats withdrew their support at the last minute to embarrass GOP leaders. But conservative advocacy groups claimed victory, suggesting that the 62 Republicans who opposed the legislation did so with an intent to draft a more conservative, less costly plan.

Democrats, who opposed a $20.5 billion cut to the food-stamp program in the measure, said the failure was the result of Republicans’ inability to govern their caucus or count votes. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called it “amateur hour.”

Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said, “They turned what should have been a non-controversial farm bill into a partisan mess. I cannot imagine what they will manage to do with a controversial immigration bill.”

The agriculture sector stands to suffer the most from the bill’s failure. Without action later this year, American farmers will fall back to a 1949 law governing the industry, which could lead to steep price increases on items such as milk.

The Senate passed its version of a longer term farm bill earlier this month on a bipartisan vote of 66 to 27. The measure calls for spending $24 billion less than current law by ending programs such as a $5 billion direct cash subsidy program for absentee farmers. The House plan would have resulted in nearly $40 billion in savings, in large part by slashing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, widely known as food stamps.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) predicted as recently as last Thursday, when discussing the farm bill drafted by Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) over the past two years, that “you'll see strong bipartisan majorities for bills that we bring to the floor.”

Instead, by the time the gavel fell, Lucas was left in the middle of the floor collecting condolences from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. There is no clear plan for what will happen next, as the Sept. 30 deadline for the expiration of the current stopgap farm bill approaches.

“It’s just disappointing that we have seen now the Democrats putting partisanship over progress,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told reporters as he left the House floor after the vote.

Cantor and senior Republican aides said that Lucas’s partner in drafting the legislation, Rep. Col­lin C. Peterson (Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, had assured GOP leaders that 40 Democrats were poised to support the plan and send it on to a House-Senate conference to work out differences between the two measures.

“The farm bill has traditionally been a bipartisan bill, and everyone knows that,” Cantor added. The 2008 version, for example, received 216 votes from Democrats and 100 from Republicans.

But Pelosi warned Republicans two days ago that any amendments that would further restrict programs for the poor would diminish Democratic support, forcing Republicans to find almost all of the votes from their side.

The Republicans ignored the threat and approved several tough amendments, including one written by Rep. Steve Southerland II (R-Fla.) that would have required more stringent work requirements for food-stamp recipients.

At that point, Peterson told reporters, he pulled Cantor aside in the back of the chamber to tell him that Democratic support had cratered and that he was no longer encouraging support for the farm bill. “I was basically telling people, ‘At this point, vote your district, vote what you think your people back home want,’ ” he said.

“They can try and blame it on me, but that ain’t going to work,” he added.

The vote served as the latest demonstration that, on almost every key issue, House Democrats wield unusual clout in the normally authoritarian chamber because Republicans consistently face opposition from several dozen in their own ranks.

In the end, 171 Republicans voted for the legislation, but a quarter of the GOP caucus opposed it. Just 24 Democrats supported the measure.

“GOP leaders are trying to pin the farm bill loss on Pelosi; it’s not. Conservatives killed it because it spent nearly $1 trillion,” said Daniel Holler, a spokesman for the Heritage Action for America network, which spent $100,000 on ads opposing the bill.

Senior GOP aides said some Republicans were willing to vote “yes” if the measure was going to pass, but once it became clear that it would not, they wanted to appease Heritage and others on their side rather than the leaders.

Boehner and Cantor are now in an all-too-familiar position, with their rank and file holding firm on demands that will derail attempts at broad compromise. It is a situation that Republicans faced in 2011 during a debate on lifting Treasury’s borrowing authority and in December during the “fiscal cliff” showdown.

Republicans vowed earlier this year to avoid such a predicament, but Democrats predict the same dynamic will play out in negotiations on immigration and budget legislation.

On the farm bill, Boehner and Cantor could re-craft it to appease the right flank, draining Democratic support in a long-shot bid to win more Republican votes. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a staunch conservative who often goes against the leadership but who supported the farm bill, warned that most of the GOP “nays” on Thursday came from those who are “just simply opposed to all subsidies.”

The leaders could instead move the legislation to the left and remove some of the cuts to the food stamp program, taking away GOP support in a bid to pick up a few dozen Democratic votes. That would make the House bill much easier to mesh with the Senate plan, but doing so would further erode Boehner’s support inside the Republican conference. He has relied several times this year on Democratic majorities to pass critical legislation.

Just Tuesday, as he vowed victory on the farm bill, Boehner pledged on the immigration front to move only legislation that had support from a majority of GOP lawmakers.

The other option on the farm bill: Do nothing now, then pass a temporary extension of the law in September.

That, however, would not reform the food stamp or subsidy programs, something conservatives have long urged.

“If you overreach, you get nothing. And that’s what we’ve been trying to tell people. You carry this too far, and you’ll get no reduction in the deficit, you’ll get no reform of the farm programs, you will continue food stamps just exactly like they are,” Peterson said.

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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