Support for U.S. House Speaker Wanes with Farm Bill Rejection

June 21, 2013 06:39 AM

The vote shows how difficult it will be for Boehner to gain passage of other legislative initiatives, including an immigration law rewrite.

Roxana Tiron, Derek Wallbank and Alan Bjerga

House Speaker John Boehner lost support from more than one-fourth of his Republican colleagues as the chamber rejected a $939 billion agricultural-policy bill, the latest in a series of embarrassments handed to him by his own party.

Sixty-two Republicans joined Democrats in the 195-234 defeat of the measure yesterday. Many members of the speaker’s party opposed the legislation’s crop-subsidy provisions while Democrats were displeased over cuts to the food-stamp program.

The vote shows how difficult it will be for Boehner to gain passage of other legislative initiatives including an immigration law rewrite, raising the nation’s debt limit and changing the tax system. Republicans control the House 234-201.

"It is an embarrassment for the entire Republican conference," Republican strategist John Feehery said in an interview yesterday. "They need to figure out how to legislate this year. If they don’t, it doesn’t bode well for immigration or fiscal negotiations."

The rejection of the farm bill is the latest of several legislative defeats for Boehner. In February 2011, Republicans were seven votes short of extending provisions of the Patriot Act; in September 2011 a temporary spending bill failed when more than 40 Republicans voted against it.

Boehner, an Ohio Republican, had to cancel votes to avoid other losses -- in July 2011 on a bill to raise the nation’s debt ceiling and in December 2012 he scuttled voting on a plan to avoid year-end tax increases and spending cuts.

‘Trust’ Leader

"It’s a failure of followership," said Feehery, who previously served as an aide to former Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "You’ve got to trust your leader."

The farm bill, which would benefit crop-buyers such as Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., grocers including Supervalu Inc. and insurers including Wells Fargo & Co. and Ace Ltd, has been working through Congress for almost two years. The current authorization for U.S. Department of Agriculture programs, passed in 2008, was extended last year after the Senate approved a plan and the House declined to consider its own.

The bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee proposed cutting $20.5 billion, or 2.5 percent, from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps, over 10 years. The provision would tighten eligibility in a way that would drop about 1.8 million people from the program, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The measure also would have boosted insurance subsidies to growers of corn, wheat and other crops. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking House Democrat, voted against the plan.

Bipartisan Measures

Farm bills are passed with bipartisan support about every five years. The current law starts to expire in stages Sept. 30, although farm groups told Congress last year that the dates could slip if they knew what federal policy would be before they had to place orders for the spring planting. Federal dairy law expires Dec. 31 and would revert to a 1949 law that could double the price of milk.

The bill lost Democratic support after Republicans added a provision, sought by supporters of the anti-tax Tea Party, that would let states run pilot projects to set work requirements for food-stamp recipients.

Pelosi called the bill’s defeat a "major amateur hour" by the Republican majority.

"The Republican bill would have unconscionably increased hunger across America," she said in a statement.

‘Chose Politics’

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, supported the amendment and blamed Democrats, saying they "chose politics over progress and meaningful reform." Boehner’s office issued no statement after the vote.

Republicans said Democrats knew the amendments were coming and still chose to kill the bill by withholding support. Plus, they said, the vote would only have advanced the bill to a House-Senate negotiation that the additional food stamp cuts might not have survived.

Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said more Democrats were ready to vote for the bill until the House adopted the amendment on work requirements for food-stamp recipients.

"I don’t know how you can blame us, we’re not in charge," Peterson said in an interview. "If you overreach, you get nothing and that’s what we’ve been trying to tell people," Peterson said in an interview. "You take things too far and sometimes it blows up on you."

15 Votes

Peterson said he told Cantor he lost about 15 votes between changes to the dairy program and the amendment allowing work requirements for food stamps.

Minnesota Democrat Rick Nolan said he had been assigned a list of 12 Democrats he was supposed to persuade to vote for the farm bill. Earlier this week, he was doing that and told reporters he was optimistic the bill could pass. "In the end there were simply too many poison pills by the extreme Republican right," Nolan said. "And I simply could not support it." He voted against the bill.

President Barack Obama’s budget office said this week it would recommend a veto of the House bill. "The administration believes that Congress should achieve significant budgetary savings to help reduce the deficit without creating hardship for vulnerable families -- for example, by reducing crop insurance subsidies," said the statement from the Office of Management and Budget.

House leaders can try again later with the bill, or bring up a revised measure. The Senate passed a $955 billion version of farm legislation two weeks ago.

Senate Bill

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said in a statement yesterday the House should take up his chamber’s plan, which was approved 66-27 on June 10. Still, with House leadership seemingly unable to manage its own affairs, passage this year could be difficult, said former Representative Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee during his time in Congress.

"It used to be, you would vote for a bill to get it to conference and fit it there, or you’d vote for something because you needed your friends to vote for your bill later. The Tea Party shut that off, and that makes it hard for Boehner," he said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Major farm groups largely expressed disappointment the bill didn’t pass and vowed to try to help pass a plan this year.

"It remains imperative to get a new farm bill passed before the current one-year extension expires in September," said the National Council of Farmer Co-operatives, whose members include CHS Inc. and Growmark Inc., in a statement. "America’s farmers and ranchers deserve the certainty."

The unexpected defeat left House leaders grappling for what to do next in the vote’s aftermath. "This proved to be a heavier lift than even I expected," said Representative Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, the Republican chairman of the Agriculture Committee, which recommended approval of the measure. "I expect there will be a next step."

The Senate bill is S. 954. The House bill is H.R. 1947.

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