Thursday, June 14, 2012

UPDATED: "Popcorn is Doing Just Fine" But Farm Bill Progress Slows in the Senate

Senator John McCain (R-AZ), in explaining to reporters why he's introduced an amendment to strike 31 words of popcorn support language from the Senate's version of the farm bill that it is considering this week, noted wryly on Monday that "Popcorn is doing just fine," adding, “This popcorn carve-out is a perfect example of farm bill politics. There isn’t a kernel of evidence that shows they need this support from the taxpayers."

The squabble over 31 legislative words concerning popcorn subsidies is also symptomatic of the uncertain fate facing the 1,000-plus-page farm bill, because McCain's amendment is only one, as of Friday morning, of about 283 potential amendments to the legislation have been queued up by Senators. And many of those 283 have very little, if anything, to do with the agricultural and nutrition core purposes of the legislation.

Behind the scenes, Republicans continue to press their demands that the Senate consider several high-profile, non-agriculture amendments, including an amendment to stop aid to Pakistan, and several that would limit EPA's regulatory authority. On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) detailed five regulatory issues on which Republicans want to force farm bill amendment votes, including proposals associated with financial derivatives, Clean Water Act and non-navigable waters, and work safety rules for children. Because of this amendment glut and political impasse, with the exception of several procedural votes on a handful of amendments, there has been no real substantive action on the farm bill so far this week on the Senate floor, and on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced that there would be no more votes in the Senate this week.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Stabenow and Ranking Member Roberts continue to negotiate a resolution to the impasse, at the urging of  Reid. Both Stabenow and Roberts have expressed optimism at the chances of reaching some accord, and moving the bill forward in the Senate.  Stabenow indicated late on Thursday that she expects to be able to to present a consent agreement for completing the farm bill early next week and that she believes "it’s very possible" to win passage of the farm bill without a difficult cloture vote.  Earlier in the week, Stabenow told reporters, “Every step of the way, people have said we couldn’t get this done. I would suggest that people not underestimate the number of folks in the Senate who care about these issues, who want deficit reduction, who want reform, who want an agricultural policy that works for our country. And we’re just going to keep on working.”

If the Senate cannot reach agreement on which amendments to consider, the bill could stall despite the strong bipartisan support. Reid is essentially faced with three alternatives for moving the bill ahead this year: (1) hope that Stabenow and Roberts can reach some sort of agreement with each other and among their peers on a select (and manageable) number of amendments that will be considered by the Senate; (2) slog through each and every one of the amendments one at a time (an option that Reid to date has said is not an option); or (3) let the bill die for now, and take it up later in the Congressional session (i.e., following the November election). The last option would require some sort of farm bill extension before the current law's authority expires at the end of September.

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