In case their attempt to avert a White House veto fails, farm bill conferees are also preparing to craft a bill that could gather enough support for a veto override. They have left several issues important to the White House open for consultation into next week: payment limits, farmers' ownership of commodities after they have received subsidies, and the trade title. But internal divisions within the conference remain.
One major roadblock is a provision in the House-passed bill to stop states from using private firms to interview food stamp applicants. Republicans oppose the measure on grounds that the states should have more options to provide efficient service to applicants. The principal negotiators decided to leave out the provision, but Reps. Joe Baca, D-Calif., and David Scott, D-Ga., argued that only government employees should interview applicants, and persuaded House conferees to put the ban back in on a 9-7 party-line vote. Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad said that while he agreed with Baca and Scott, he could not vote for the measure because Bush and House Republicans had made clear it was a deal-breaker. Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin also agreed in principle with House Democrats but noted that it would cost Indiana millions of dollars to stop using contractors. The Senate conferees on a voice vote rejected the House proposal. The issue ended in an impasse, but Peterson emphasized afterward the Senate would not allow it in the conference report.
The bill's trade title has several issues to be ironed out. The Bush administration has proposed allowing 25 percent of U.S. food aid to go to local purchase in developing countries, which U.S. farm interests bitterly oppose. Farm and development groups also want a "safebox" for food aid tied to development so that the U.S. Agency for International Development cannot use the development food aid money for emergencies, but the administration has opposed it. Furthermore, a softwood lumber provision remains unresolved, according to House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson. A House-passed provision to apply a dairy promotion and research assessment for the first time on Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia and on dairy imports that was out of the bill is back in. To appease the Hawaii and Alaska senators, conferees added an authorization for aid to geographically disadvantaged farmers. Peterson said a decision on the level of the assessment on dairy imports had not been decided, and that he and Baucus would try to work on language to avoid a World Trade Organization challenge. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Reps. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., proposed changes to the commodity title, but the Democratic conferees rejected those proposals. Those decisions could make an override more difficult. "I don't have to vote for this bill," Moran said.
The conferees found more agreement on the nutrition title, which divides up the unprecedented $10.361 billion increase in nutrition spending over 10 years. The bill provides $7.845 million to ease eligibility rules for food stamps and increase benefits; $1.256 billion for The Emergency Food Assistance Program; $1.02 billion for fruit and vegetable school snacks; $60 million for an international pilot project important to House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel; $60 million for the McGovern-Dole international school feeding program; $50 million for senior farmers' markets; $50 million for community food projects; and $20 million for nutrition promotion. The conferees rejected a ban on meatpacker ownership of animals shortly before slaughter and reauthorized the Commodity Futures Trading Commission through 2013.
This article appears in the May 3, 2008 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.