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Stunning farm bill defeat lays bare House dysfunction

The farm bill failed to pass the House Thursday after Republicans began tinkering with the measure, driving off Democrats who otherwise would have voted for it.

The dysfunctional House of Representatives claimed another legislative victim on Thursday: the farm bill.

Once believed to be a nearly sure-fire bipartisan achievement for Congress this year, the five-year, nearly $1 trillion farm bill unexpectedly went down in flames in the House on Thursday in a 195 to 234 vote, sending a shockwave through rural lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol.

The Republican-led House managed a difficult feat, offering enough conservative amendments to siphon expected Democratic support for the bill while not holding the line in their own caucus enough to move the bill move forward.

“If you overreach, you get nothing, and that’s what we’ve been trying to tell people,” said Rep. Collin Peterson (D) of Minnesota, the top liberal on the House Agriculture Committee, who has worked with Chairman Frank Lucas (R) of Oklahoma to pass the bill and who voted for final passage.

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“You carry this too far and you get no reduction in the deficit, you get no reform of the farm programs, you will continue food stamps just exactly like they are with no changes, you will get crop insurance with no changes, that’s exactly where we are at,” Representative Peterson said. “We warned people – if you take things too far, sometimes it blows up on you.”

The Senate passed its own farm bill in June, 66 to 27. That raised hopes that the House would be able to move its own measure and allow the differences – chiefly, the size of cuts to food stamp programs and policy questions about crop insurance and direct payments to farmers – to be ironed out in a conference between the two chambers.

But without an incredible turn of events, a farm bill that lawmakers in both chambers herald as a jobs bill for rural America looks to be dead for the 113th Congress.

The farm bill, 80 percent of which is devoted to federal food support known as SNAP, is a complex beast of legislation. The bill pits regional agricultural interests against one another and creates competition between farmers and processors of agricultural products. Moreover, in recent years, it has drawn the ire of conservative lawmakers and outside groups who say the bill has become too broad in order to appeal to different groups – combining the nutrition programs vital to urban legislators and the farm support subsidies and insurance dear to rural lawmakers. (They add that the subsidies distort the free market, to boot.)

While it looked like Representatives Lucas and Peterson had found a way to stitch together a bill, it all fell apart Thursday afternoon.

The disappointment is two years in the making.

Last year, House leadership refused to bring a farm bill to the floor, fearing both that it didn’t have the votes to pass and that it could expose Republicans to criticisms from their conservative colleagues during an election year. (The Senate, however, managed to pass a farm bill by a large bipartisan margin.)

This year, about 60 Republicans quit their caucus and pulled against the bill, versus only 24 Democrats who voted in favor, sinking the measure.

Rep. Kristi Noem (R) of South Dakota, an agriculture committee member who voted for the bill, summarized the split after the vote.

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“While a majority of Republicans voted for the bill, there were too many that walked away because it didn’t cut enough, or because it wasn’t perfect enough in some way. And despite the strong bipartisan support this Farm Bill received a few weeks ago in the Agriculture Committee, only 24 Democrats voted for the bill today, largely because the less than 3 percent cut in food stamps was too much,” she said.

Yet Republicans also pushed through a handful of amendments that turned almost half the 40 Democratic votes Peterson thought he had in hand.

With Democrats already smarting at the magnitude of cuts to SNAP (the House offered $20 billion in reductions, while the Senate offered $4 billion), House Republicans muscled through an amendment allowing states to increase work requirements for eligibility in the program. They further alienated some lawmakers with dairy farmers in their districts through another amendment sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia. 

Republicans said Democrats acted in bad faith, pulling their support at the last moment to embarrass Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, who publicly backed the bill beyond what is typical for speakers.

“If they had an issue that they thought was going to derail this at the last minute, they had plenty of time to bring it up,” says Rory Cooper, a spokesman for House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia.

Could the farm bill rise again?

“That’s not been determined yet,” Lucas said, “there will be a next step.”

But given the outbreak of partisan recrimination in the vote’s aftermath, that will take more than twisting some arms.

Peterson said: “It’s bruised feelings, too, that we have to somehow or another overcome.”