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Bipartisan Farm Bill Now rally reveals partisan divide on bringing up the bill

By JERRY HAGSTROM

Two Republican candidates in increasingly tough races — Rep. Rick Berg of North Dakota, who is running for the Senate, and Rep. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, who is running for re-election — attended the Farm Bill Now rally today and called on the House leadership to take up the farm bill in September.

But the battle over bringing up the bill is becoming is becoming increasingly partisan.

House leaders have said they don’t want to bring up the bill because there are such deep divisions over how much to cut food stamps. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said recently he believes the Republicans want to wait until after the election to make the large cuts in the commodity programs, crop insurance and conservation programs that are not in either the Senate-passed farm bill or the House Agriculture Committee-passed bill, but are in the budget proposal of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., now the Republican vice presidential candidate.

There is also speculation that the Republicans do not want to finish the farm bill before the election because it would give President Barack Obama an opportunity to hold a signing ceremony in rural America. Iowa is a key presidential battleground state, and the rural vote in other battleground states is also considered competitive. Obama did better in rural areas in 2008 than any Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton.

More than 80 farm groups held a Capitol Hill rally today calling on the House to consider the bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee before the current bill expires at the end of this month, and for Congress to pass a conference report during the lame duck session after the election. The rally was co-hosted by the Democratic-leaning National Farmers Union and the Republican-leaning American Farm Bureau Federation and displayed an extraordinary unity among farm groups in favor of finishing a farm bill this year and in opposition to an extension of the 2008 bill.

Both Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., have conceded that Congress will not have time to finish a conference report before the election, but at the rally today they said the House should take up the bill before going home to campaign so that congressional staff could work on a conference report in October.

Peterson, who has previously told reporters that he believes Republicans made a decision in Tampa not to bring up the farm bill at least until after the election, said today that the Republican leadership could still be forced to bring it up if farmers would start calling members’ offices and insisting on it.

Crop and cattle prices are high and farmers have not been demanding quick passage of the bill or disaster aid, but Peterson said today that the rally must be only the beginning of the effort to get the bill passed in September.

“What we need is 100 to 200 calls to members in these districts,” Peterson told the several hundred farmers gathered near the Capitol. “If you don’t do that we are not going to get a farm bill. We went through August and did not get a groundswell. I can’t do it, these leaders can’t do it.”

Peterson added, however, “We’re not going to have time to do this bill before the election even if we get it through the House.”

Stabenow said in a call to reporters Tuesday and in her remarks today that if the Houses passes the bill the conference report could be passed quickly in a lame duck session.

Peterson emphasized that he is opposed to the suggestion of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, that the farm bill be extended for a year because the House and Senate would each have to take up the bill again and the Congressional Budget Office would rescore the bill and there would probably be less money to spend.

Although the current farm bill expires on September 30, sections affecting individual crops expire on different dates as the next crop year proceeds. Peterson said an extension is not necessary because key sections of the bill would remain in place, and suggested that interested parties look at a July 26 Congressional Research Service report that details when specific sections of the 2008 bill would need to be extended.

“We need you to get out there and energize and call and get this ginned up to get the leadership to move this bill. Farm bill now,” Peterson said as he concluded his remarks.

Berg, Noem and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who is not running for re-election, also spoke at the rally, but neither Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., nor House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., showed up.

A Lucas spokeswoman said in an email, “Chairman Lucas appreciates the efforts of all groups and individuals who are trying to move along the farm bill process and highlight how important a bill is for our producers and rural constituents. “

CNN reported today that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said that the House Republican leadership is still “working with the Senate to see what can be done.” He conceded, however, that the “timing is definitely short.”

Boehner’s office refused to comment, CNN said.

While the farm groups held their rally, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., and other conservatives held a news conference to talk about their problems with the farm bill and other legislation, CNN reported.

“For conservatives like myself ... the real concern (is) that what is now a farm bill is really not that. It’s a food stamp bill,” Huelskamp told reporters. Social safety net programs such as food stamps should be considered separately from more direct agricultural support programs, he said.

Berg, a first-term House member who is running for the Senate against former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, said in a news release that he was “proud to stand with our nation’s ag community to tell House leadership that the time for a farm bill is now.”

“Right now our farmers and ranchers are in the field doing their job, and House leadership needs to do theirs,” Berg said. “Farmers and ranchers deserve the peace of mind a long-term farm bill will bring. I will continue exhausting every possible option on behalf of North Dakota farmers and ranchers to get the farm bill to the floor for a vote.”

Politico reported that Berg has told the House leadership that he has been hurt by inaction on the farm bill. Heitkamp has had success asking why Berg has been unsuccessful in his attempts to convince the House leadership to bring up the bill, and polls have shown the race to be even or with her ahead.

Noem, who defeated Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in 2010, has been repeatedly pressed by her opponent, Matt Verelick, about why the House leadership has not taken up the farm bill and why she has gone back and forth about signing a discharge petition that would force the House leadership to bring up the bill.

Noem also spoke at the rally and later announced that she and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., are requesting a meeting with Cantor to discuss getting the farm bill to the floor for a vote. Noem said that she and Welch would gather signatures on a letter to Cantor tonight and Thursday.

“Whether members support or oppose the farm bill, we believe the House should be allowed to vote so that we can be held accountable to those we represent,” Noem and Welch wrote in a draft of the letter. “We understand time is short, but we need to act now to provide certainty in rural and urban America alike.”