After seeing a bipartisan farm bill pass out of the House Agricultural Committee and then stall on the floor because of disagreements over the level of funding for food assistance programs, House Speaker John Boehner is looking hard at how to avoid a political showdown over the $500 billion legislation.
Tea Party Republicans are set on defending the $16 billion in cuts to food stamps in the House version of the bill, more moderate Republicans are open to negotiating, and many Democrats prefer the Senate's version of the farm bill and don't want to see more than $4 billion slashed from food aid programs. [See: Latest political cartoons]
To keep the peace, members of the House are mulling over a one-year extension of the current farm bill, which expires September 30, with added aid to go to livestock and fruit and vegetable farmers struck by the devastating Midwest drought that has caused plants to wilt and farmers to sell off large numbers of cattle they can no longer afford to feed.
Roughly 40 percent of the country's counties have been deemed agricultural disaster areas and there's no government relief in sight.
The 2008 farm bill authorized livestock disaster relief for only four years, and the money likewise has dried up.
"I do believe the House will address the livestock disaster program that in the last farm bill was only authorized for four years," Boehner said Thursday. But he stayed away from specifics.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican, was working to drum up support for a one-year extension of the current legislation Thursday, hoping to get something passed before legislators return home for the August recess, many to face constituents sweating out the results.
The Senate passed its own cost-cutting version of the farm bill with bipartisan report back in June. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, signaled this week she'd be open to negotiating with House leaders, but warned against procrastinating on the legislation.
"If the House intends to send us a bill that will be used to negotiate the farm bill during August, I am open to that approach," Stabenow said. "If Congress does what Congress always does and kicks the can down the road with a short-term extension, there will be no reform, direct payments will continue, we'll lose the opportunity for major deficit reduction, and we'll deliver a real blow to our economic recovery," she said. [Should Congress be Using the Farm Bill to Cut Food Stamps?]
Farmers across the country are also wary of giving up now on a bill that, before this, had moved relatively smoothly through both the House and the Senate.
"We have a drought, we have farmers who need disaster relief, and we have a farm bill that passed the Senate floor," says Dale Moore, the deputy executive director for policy at the National Farm Bureau. "We understand the politics and process and timing is going to make it very difficult to get this done in the House, but the opportunity is now."