Things in Washington never quite are what they seem. Just when we thought the House's passage of a farm-only farm bill offered a pathway to conference, we get another bump in the road. And without a nutrition title, we could see continued stalling before official conferencing begins.
All revenue generating measures must officially have a House bill number (i.e. H.R. 2642). Procedurally, the Senate can take up the House bill, approve or amend it, and then send it back to the House requesting a conference.
In the final hours of Senate action July 18, Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., went through the latest hoop to get the farm bill to conference. She asked for unanimous consent on H.R. 2642, and have the text of the Senate's farm bill (S. 954) as passed by the Senate be inserted instead.
"This is a very important step as we move forward in what I am very confident, despite the twists and turns, will result in a bipartisan farm bill," Stabenow said on the floor.
Stabenow officially sent the Senate bill to the House and requested a conference on the farm bill. Each chamber will name conferees to settle the differences between the bills. Stabenow asked for a ratio of 7 Democrats to 5 Republicans to represent the Senate side.
Earlier in the week Stabenow stressed time is of the essence and said the farm bill expires in 5 legislative weeks. Once Congress returns July 22, Congress will be working only 19 more days.
It appears House Leadership would like to move forward with a House nutrition title before moving to the formal conference, though there is no timeline for that work yet. If this is the case we could continue to see things stall out when the Republican House leadership tries to determine how much they will go after nutrition spending in its stand-alone nutrition bill.
Meanwhile, reports indicate discussions are being held in both chambers to ascertain Members’ concerns, and informal talks between agriculture-focused staff are ongoing.
Stabenow did express confidence that conferees could come together to produce a bipartisan bill that would be bipartisan in both the House and Senate. Stabenow added she will be negotiating with members who understand agriculture and rural America and is "not going to negotiate with extreme measures."
The two chambers will need to settle what has become significant differences in how to handle crop price supports, dairy policy, nutrition spending and permanent law provisions.
The House version also included a provision that would make the 2013 commodity title new permanent law, which Stabenow questioned how it benefits agriculture in the long-term and added there is great concern this would take away the pressure to ensure a comprehensive farm bill is updated every five years.
The permanent law provision is a "very serious issue" said Stabenow from talking to agricultural groups and it "ranks very high, if not the top concern, they have in what was passed Thursday."
So the differences do appear to have become wider, a final path remains unclear, and time is quickly running out before the Sept. 30 expiration. Ah the joys of farm bill writing!