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Rally: Clock ticking on farm bill

Matt Varilek1 / 2
Rep. Kristi Noem2 / 2

WASHINGTON -- Congress is running out of time to pass a new agriculture law that covers food stamps and crop subsidies before the election, a Republican senator said Wednesday as groups rallied on Capitol Hill demanding action.

The Senate, which passed a five-year law in June, is aiming to adjourn at the end of next week and return after the Nov. 6 election, deputy Democratic leader Dick Durbin of Illinois said Tuesday.

In the House, Republican leaders are reluctant to vote on a five-year bill before the law expires Sept. 30.

A one- year measure being considered by House Republicans is "unacceptable," Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Tuesday. "You have a much better chance of getting a bill in December," after the election when disagreements on issues such as food-stamp spending may be easier to resolve, said Mary Kay Thatcher, top lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, the biggest U.S. farmer group.

The bureau, along with the National Farmers Union and about 40 other organizations held a rally on Capitol Hill to pressure lawmakers into passing a plan. About 500 people participated.

"I am disappointed that they haven't scheduled this for a vote," said Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., at the rally. "Frankly, I take my direction from the people of South Dakota.

"I've heard a lot of excuses as to why this Farm Bill isn't done yet. And frankly I'm tired of excuses," Noem said. "Washington, D.C., makes up too many excuses. I'm not taking it anymore, I hope you aren't taking it anymore. Let's get to work and let's get a farm bill now."

Her Democratic opponent, Matt Varilek, held a conference call with South Dakota reporters Wednesday morning.

"I'm happy to see how the ag groups are coming together to keep pressure on the U.S. House," Varilek said.

But he said Noem needs to work harder to help bring the bill to a vote. Varilek has called for her to sign a discharge petition, which would force the bill to a vote on the House floor.

"I wish she was doing more than giving speeches," Varilek said. "I wish she was signing onto the discharge petition to force a vote and rounding up votes with the freshman class to force a vote."

Noem will sign the petition when it is ready to be signed, said her campaign manager, Tom Erickson. That is not the case yet, he said.

Noem said she is aware discharge petitions are unpopular with congressional leaders, but said she is more concerned about her constituents than what the House leaders think of her actions. She voted for the bill in the House Agriculture Committee, which passed it in July. It has remained stuck there, with no scheduled vote in the full House.

Varilek said it is "ironic" that Noem attended a rally designed to apply pressure on the House Republican leadership team when she is a member of that team. Noem is one of two freshmen liaisons to the House GOP leadership.

With an adjournment looming and Congress needing to pass a stop-gap measure to pay for government programs for the budget year that begins Oct. 1, action on long-term farm policy is in doubt, said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

"I'd like to see a five-year farm bill," Thune told reporters yesterday on Capitol Hill. "But in the number of legislative days that are left, it's unlikely we'd probably get there.'

The farm legislation funds federal nutrition programs including food stamps, the Department of Agriculture's biggest expense, as well as subsidies to farmers that lower raw- materials costs for companies including Archer Daniels Midland and Bunge. In the next 10 years, measures approved by the House Agriculture Committee and passed by the Senate would cost about $1 trillion, with cuts in nutrition programs, including food stamps, and farm subsidies. Lower payments to farmers would be partially offset by adjustments in crop- insurance initiatives.

The Senate passed its five-year measure in June, and the House Agriculture Committee advanced a plan in July. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Monday that leadership still hopes to get a farm bill passed by the end of the month. GOP hesitancy to move forward a bill is frustrating members of its caucus from rural areas, who want to show constituents results before the November elections.

Hurdles remain, especially between the House committee and Senate versions of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. The House version calls for a $16 billion cut over 10 years, about four times the Senate's reduction.

Democrats including Stabenow have said the House cuts are too large, while tea party Republicans including Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas have said they're not enough.

Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said Republican leadership doesn't appear interested in passing a law.

"They've apparently decided not to do it before the election," Peterson said of House leaders. "I can't really do anything about it."

Thune said a one-year extension may be the next-best option, considering the time constraints. Stabenow said such a move would cost the government more money and only create more uncertainty for farmers.

"People who don't want reform want to kick the can down the road," Stabenow said on Bloomberg Television. The House only needs "a couple of days" to pass a measure, after which both chambers could hammer out a final agreement, she said.

A sense of urgency on farm policy may be damped by a lack of consequences when the existing law expires, Thatcher said. "Nothing terrible happens" on Sept. 30, she said.

Without legislation, USDA programs revert to original farm- program language approved in 1949 under a radically different approach to agriculture. Still, food stamps, crop insurance, and many conservation programs have their spending authorized separately from the farm bill, and those initiatives will continue, she said.

Most crop subsidies, meanwhile, aren't paid until later in the growing season, giving lawmakers until early 2013 to avoid creating disruptions for farmers seeking to know the contours of farm programs before making planting decisions, she said. Dairy producers may see payments disrupted before then, yet they are a small constituency, she said.

That uncertainty still penalizes farmers, Stabenow said.

"It's very clear that farm country is overwhelmingly saying, "get the job done."

More than half of all U.S. counties have been declared natural disaster areas by the Department of Agriculture this year, mainly because of extreme heat and dryness. Still, farmers may see record profits of $122.2 billion this year because higher prices and crop-insurance payments will outweigh losses from the drought, the USDA said last month.

The Daily Republic's Tom Lawrence contributed to this report.