WASHINGTON, D.C., (DTN) -- Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said late Monday that she and other congressional agriculture leaders are "very close" to finishing a new farm bill, but that last-minute demands from House Republicans and the White House to make changes to forestry policy could bring down the bill.
After spending more than 20 minutes huddled with Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and their key aides on the Senate floor during a cloture vote on President Donald Trump's nomination of Stephen Vaden to be Agriculture Department general counsel, Stabenow said that she, Roberts, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., are "very close" to a final agreement but that there is "no white smoke" yet.
Then Stabenow added, "It would be very unfortunate if [the demands for forestry policy changes] brought down the farm bill ...unfortunate for farmers and ranchers."
Later, while talking to a larger group of reporters, Stabenow said, "Last-minute provisions can be the death of any complicated bill. We are poised to have agreement. Sen. Roberts and I would be happy to proceed without it [the forestry provisions] ...we are very close to wrapping up right now."
Stabenow also said that the forestry issue has been bumped up to the Senate and House leaders -- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
The forestry issue arose last week in reaction to the latest devastating wildfires in California. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a call to reporters that Congress should use the farm bill to expand their current authority to enter into partnership agreements with the states for forestry management to localities and Indian tribes.
Perdue and Zinke also said Congress should give them more authority to clear forests of materials that they contend are causing fires, although they emphasized that they are not proposing clear-cutting. The call had obvious White House input -- the White House press office, rather than USDA or Interior, released a transcript of the call.
Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on Friday was the first Democrat to declare that the House Republicans and the White House were using the farm bill to try to pass questionable policies.
Stabenow last night said Congress had included nine changes to forestry policy in an omnibus earlier this year, and that she and other Democrats see no reason to make more changes to forestry policy at this time, because those nine policy changes haven't "been used yet."
Perdue said that a provision to allow forest fires to be declared disasters, and therefore eligible for funding different from using USDA fire suppression funds, will not go into effect until the next fiscal year, but Stabenow said she was referring to policies not being implemented, not to that funding issue.
Until his news conference with Zinke last week, Perdue had said that the contents of the farm bill were up to Congress.
Before going to the Senate floor, Roberts told reporters, "We're close."
While other senators voted, Stabenow, Joe Shultz, her Agriculture Committee staff director and Jacqlyn Schneider, her deputy staff director, Roberts and James Glueck, his committee staff director, sat in one corner of the floor, talked and often laughed and smiled at each other. At one point, Shultz and Roberts high-fived each other.
After the huddle, Roberts spent time on the floor talking with McConnell and other senators and their aides.
Asked by DTN whether there would be a farm bill this year, McConnell said he "certainly" hopes so.
"Hope springs eternal," said McConnell, who has particularly emphasized the importance of hemp provisions that would help farmers in his state.
Stabenow also said that the negotiators had reached an agreement on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps, with which she concurs. The House bill contained stiffer work requirements for beneficiaries.
Stabenow said that payment limitations and "a handful" of other issues remain, but all are "resolvable" at the conference committee level.
Earlier Monday, a coalition of leftist and right-wing farm bill critics held a news conference in which they said they feared that the final bill would agree to the House provisions that would allow farmers' cousins, nieces and nephews and their spouses to qualify for up to $125,000 per year in farm subsidies. Members of the coalition said the conference committee should reject provisions in the House bill that would allow more distant relatives to get benefits if they claim some role in the farm.
Nan Swift, director of federal affairs, National Taxpayers Union, said that assuming the conference report does not contain the SNAP work requirements that were in the House farm bill that passed only on Republican votes, selling a farm bill that eases payment limitations will be "a really, really hard task."
But Joshua Sewell, senior policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense, also acknowledged the political pressures following the midterm elections in which the Democrats won the House majority.
"As much as we want to help Trump's base, we still have a base that is focused on reducing the swampiness of these bills," Sewell said.
Asked whether the decline in commodity prices and farm incomes due to the trade war created a situation in which there would be pressure to make it easier for farmers to get subsidies, the representatives of the conservative groups said they all opposed the Trump administration's tariffs that have led to retaliatory tariffs on U.S. farm products.
Ferd Hoefner, senior strategic adviser, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said that at this point, he has to assume that the stiffer payment limits in the Senate bill advocated by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, will be either eliminated or their impact reduced. The issue, Hoefner said, is the possible increase in individual and family limits.
Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs, Environmental Working Group, said that it is hard to imagine House Republican leaders "who have committed their careers to being good stewards of the taxpayer dollar" would want to bring the easier payment limits forward, but it is hard to know what is in Ryan's "heart."
The ultimate question, Faber said, is whether the incremental progress in past farm bills in reducing farm payment limits is going to continue or whether Congress will "go backwards."
Here is the link to the White House briefing on President Trump's call to action by Congress to improve forest management:
Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at email@example.com
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