WASHINGTON — House leaders said Tuesday that they were working with their Senate counterparts toward a new five-year farm bill, just days after the House pushed through a bill that would slash billions of dollars from the food stamp program.
But with only a few days left before the current farm bill expires at the end of the fiscal year, and with a fight over the debt ceiling looming, few lawmakers see any chance of getting a new farm bill done.
“I’m an eternal optimist, but I can’t see them getting anything done before the fiscal year ends,” said Dale Moore, the executive director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation. “Right now we’re just hoping that something will get done before the end of the year.”
Last year, Congress voted to extend the most current farm bill, which was passed in 2008. Although the bill expires Monday, most farm programs will continue until the end of the year because such programs extend through the crop year.
The farm bill, a 1,000-page measure that sets the nation’s food and nutrition policy, was formerly a bipartisan piece of legislation. But it has been mired in partisan gridlock for nearly two years. Most of the acrimony has been over cuts to the food stamp program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.
House Republicans, led by the majority leader, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, have pushed for nearly $40 billion in cuts to the program, a move opposed by President Obama and congressional Democrats.
In July, House Republicans passed a stand-alone farm bill that separated the nutrition programs from the overall bill for the first time since 1973. Last week, the House passed the bill, 217-210, with no Democrats voting for the measure.
‘I’m an eternal optimist, but I can’t see them getting anything done before the fiscal year ends.’
Speaker John A. Boehner signaled this week that he expects to appoint conferees in the coming weeks to meet with senators to iron out the significant differences between the two versions of the farm bill.
The Senate passed a $955 billion farm bill in May. Its bill was expected to save $23 billion during the next 10 years by eliminating or consolidating hundreds of agriculture programs.
House leaders say they would like to have a farm bill conference report before the end of the year so that both chambers can vote on the measure.
“Much-needed reforms to our farm and nutrition programs are long overdue, and we are hopeful that the House and Senate can work expeditiously to resolve these issues as soon as possible,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Boehner.
It remains unclear how the two chambers will deal with the split House farm and nutrition bills. The House is expected to vote — possibly this week — to join the two before sending a full farm bill to the Senate for consideration.
Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said she welcomed meeting with the House to bridge the differences on the farm programs.
But she called the House food stamp bill a “monumental” waste of time and added that it had no chance of passing in the Senate. Obama has threatened a veto.
While the House and the Senate prepare to work through their differences on the bill, antihunger activists are increasing their lobbying efforts to forestall cuts to the food stamp program. Advocates have inundated lawmakers with hundreds of phone calls and thousands of e-mails.
The Food Bank for New York City, the country’s largest food bank, has started a social media campaign through a website, HungerCliff.org.
“The farm bill must protect our vital antihunger resources,” said Triada Stampas, the senior director of government relations for the food bank. “No cuts are acceptable.”
With time running out to pass a farm bill this year, some members of Congress have raised the possibility of extending the previous legislation for another year.
But Stabenow said she was opposed to another extension.
“I do not support an extension because it is bad policy that yields no deficit reduction, no reform, and does nothing to help American agriculture create jobs,” she said. “It’s time to do the work we were sent here to do and finally finish this farm bill.”
Food stamps are financed through an annual appropriations bill, and their funding will continue despite the uncertainty surrounding the farm bill.
But the coming battle over the debt ceiling and a possible government shutdown does threaten financing for farm and nutrition programs.
“At this point, everything is up in the air,” said Moore, of the Farm Bureau. “Between the debt ceiling fight and all the issues with getting a new farm bill, we just don’t know what’s going to happen.”