WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on the farm bill conference committee — including its three Minnesotans — said they were happy to begin working on a compromise bill, though that was about all they accomplished Wednesday.
The committee’s 40-plus members each got a few minutes to lay out their priorities for the conference when it met for the first time. The brunt of their work will come later: They spent a lot of today’s meeting handing out optimistic platitudes and praising colleagues for even getting to the negotiating table in the first place.
Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, acknowledged there are a number of policy differences between the House and Senate bills but said he was optimistic “we’ll be able to find some middle ground and finish the farm bill.”
“It is time for members to start making the compromises necessary to put together a bill that can be defended and clearly explained to both our colleagues and the general public,” he said. “It is time to put together a bill that can pass both houses and be signed into law by the president.”
Largely missing from the meeting were the issues that will, eventually, divide the committee. Chief among them is food stamp funding — House conferees brought with them a bill that cuts $40 billion from the program over 10 years, while the Senate would cut about $4 billion. In their opening statements, some Democrats voiced concerns about the cuts, but most kept their complaints to a minimum, preferring instead to take a very wonky look at the parts of the bill with a lot of bipartisan support.
Minnesota’s members followed that playbook. Rep. Tim Walz highlighted farmer training programs within the bill and called for good conservation and energy programs in the final product (Walz is the ranking member of the House Conservation, Energy and Forestry panel).
“A unified conference, with a unified bill, will go at least a little ways toward bringing back some faith and restoring the American public’s faith that we can govern,” he said.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar plugged Minnesota’s rank as the country’s leading turkey, sweet corn, peas and oats producer. The farm bill, she said, “matters to our whole state.”
She gave a floor speech earlier Wednesday to extol the virtues of the Senate bill and the need to get a long-term bill done before the end of the year.
“It is a five-year farm bill,” she said. “It has worked in the past. It brings the debt down by $24 billion. It’s a bipartisan bill. Let’s show the people of America that we mean business about working across the aisle.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry