House fends off threats as farm bill plods toward final vote

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, May 18, 2018

Farm programs survived two significant threats in the House yesterday, keeping alive the possibility that the 2018 farm bill will pass today.

Lawmakers solidly turned back proposals to end the federal sugar program and to phase out farm subsidies, two amendments that House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said would have derailed the broader measure.

But final passage of the five-year bill — which covers crop programs, conservation, rural energy, research and nutrition programs — remained in some doubt as the conservative House Freedom Caucus hinged its support on immigration policies the bill doesn’t address.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” Conaway told reporters last night. “That’s subject to negotiations the speaker is having with some folks about the immigration bill and their position on the farm bill.”

Conaway added, “If they don’t fix the immigration thing, that’s probably a block of enough votes than I’m not there.”

The immigration discussion focuses on the status of children of undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for years, known as “Dreamers,” as well as on border security and easing the path for immigrant guest workers to remain on dairy and other farms, said an aide to a House Republican on the Agriculture Committee.

For conservation and environmental groups, sore points in the House bill are the proposed elimination of the Conservation Stewardship Program and rollbacks of some environmental regulations in national forests, to allow for more forest-thinning to reduce wildfire risks.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition called the measure “anti-farmer.”

But conservation does score some wins, including a slight increase in the acreage cap for the Conservation Reserve Program and continuation of a program promoting conservation easements.

It’s possible, Conaway said, that the House could continue debating amendments today, then delay a vote on final passage.

Though the bill (H.R. 2) faces a razor-thin vote, it does appear poised to pass, Conaway said.

The 2014 farm bill expires Sept. 30. In the Senate, Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) told reporters yesterday he may release a proposal around June 6.

Amendments

The precarious position for the House farm bill was illustrated by the votes on sugar and farm subsidies, as well as on an amendment by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) to exempt Alaska’s national forests from the “roadless rule” that would limit logging in certain areas.

Young’s amendment appeared ready to lose by a few votes, risking his support for the farm bill. But the longtime lawmaker was able to persuade Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and a few others to switch their votes to “yes,” and it passed by one vote, 208-207.

“The roadless rule should never have applied to Alaska,” Young said during floor debate. “This is about employment.”

Farm subsidies survived as the House rejected, 83-330, the amendment by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) to phase them out.

The sugar program survived by a wide margin when the House rejected, 137-278, an effort by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) to kill it.

“I was surprised by the total,” Conaway said, recalling that when the House last voted on a sugar-killing measure, it lost by just five votes.

Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) was instrumental on that issue, Conaway said, delivering enough Democratic votes for a lopsided result.

Both men said they spoke after the vote for the first time in five weeks, ending a silence that followed disagreements over the bill’s changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Peterson told reporters he was pleased that amendments that could have threatened the bill were defeated; he had warned that successful votes on those could pave the way to similar votes on other measures down the line. But he said he won’t support the bill and doubts its prospects.

“I don’t think they have the votes,” Peterson said.

In votes on amendments, the House turned back, 75-340, an effort to eliminate rural bioenergy programs, such as the Rural Energy for America Program and the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, which promotes crop-based alternative fuels.

The sponsor of that amendment, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), said such programs “have no place in a free market.”

Today, the House is expected to debate additional amendments, including a proposal to repeal the Waters of the U.S. rule.

Conaway said he expects today’s amendments to pass without difficulty.

Amendments passed by voice votes include:

  • An amendment by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) to allocate a portion of timber revenue from Forest Service stewardship contracts to county governments.
  • An amendment by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) to allow county governments to participate in “good neighbor” authority contracts, which provide for federal-local collaboration on forest management projects.
  • An amendment by Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) to expedite the removal of dead trees in national forests damaged by fires. At least 75 percent of the area in question would have to be replanted with trees.
  • An amendment by Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) allowing the village of Santa Clara, N.M., to purchase land from the Forest Service that was formerly part of the Fort Bayard Military Reservation.
  • An amendment by Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) to streamline the process to build broadband infrastructure on federal land.
  • An amendment by Westerman requiring the Forest Service and Interior Department to report on the number of acres affected by wildfire and emergency response times.
  • An amendment by Pearce to reauthorize the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program for 10 years, which he said would allow for selective thinning of forests.
  • An amendment by Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) authorizing the Forest Service to convey 3.61 acres of Forest Service Land to Dolores County, Colo., to build a fire station.
  • A manager’s amendment by Conaway making further changes to nutrition programs — one of the chairman’s efforts to line up support for the bill.

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