The Cantor-Boehner farm bill two-step
By: David Rogers
July 25, 2013 05:27 PM EDT
The chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Marcia Fudge, signaled Thursday that she is prepared to make new concessions on food stamps to advance Farm Bill talks with the Senate.
But having met face to face with Majority Leader Eric Cantor this week, Fudge, a Democrat from Ohio, said she came away more skeptical that the Virginia Republican is willing to move from his own positions to get a
"He doesn't want a bill," Fudge told POLITICO of their Tuesday meeting. "Just in terms of our discussion, it was clear to me, it was my sense that he really does not want a bill."
As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, Fudge had opposed the initial $20.5 billion package of food stamp savings reported by the panel as part of its farm bill in June. But she said she was now willing to
consider supporting the savings as a way to get to conference with the Senate, if the Republican floor amendments ‹ including one promoted by Cantor ‹ are first pulled out.
"I would consider voting for that bill, yes," Fudge said. "I am willing to make concessions to get [the farm] bill done. I don't know how we separate the nutrition portion from the farm bill portion. However, it is
my sense that [Cantor] does not want a bill for whatever reason. That's how I feel."
Fudge's comments are significant for two reasons. First, because of her standing among Democrats, she is someone who could genuinely help to shift votes toward a compromise. Second, the fact that Fudge came away so frustrated ‹ after seeking out Cantor with the help of Ohio Republicans adds to the perception among many farm state Republicans that the majority leader is slow-walking talks with the Senate.
So much so that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has begun to reach out to the major players on the farm bill in recent days to assure them that the House will be prepared to appoint conferees early in September when
lawmakers return from the August recess.
This reassurance is important if the top members of the House and Senate Agriculture committees are to use the intervening time effectively to begin exploring compromises. These "pre-conference" talks got off to a
rough start with sniping between the staffs aggravated by Senate doubts over whether the House will ever go to conference. But Boehner appears to have calmed the waters ‹ for the moment.
Without commenting on her own conversations with the speaker, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told POLITICO that they had been short but positive.
"There wasn't confidence that everybody was on the same page and now everybody feels confident we are on the same page," Stabenow said. Asked if this was because of the speaker's intervention, she said: "I'm just
going to say it was very positive."
Cantor's office insists he is not obstructing but trying first to come up with a replacement for the nutrition title, which was jettisoned ‹ at his urging ‹ after the initial farm bill collapsed in June.
A working group of about 20 selected Republicans - most of them conservatives - has been meeting with the leader and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) for the past two weeks. But with
the House slated to go home next Friday for the August recess, Cantor's office confirmed that no food stamp proposal is on the schedule.
This led to a testy exchange on the House floor Thursday between Cantor and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
"There's nothing on here about going to conference. The gentleman has told me we're not going to conference until we've passed something on nutrition," Hoyer said.
"We are engaged in discussions with the chairman of the Agriculture Committee as to forging a consensus on a nutrition piece, so we can act again on that," Cantor answered. "It is not accurate that we don't intend
to eventually go to conference and iron out the differences between the House and Senate on both of those issues, on the Ag policies as well as the nutrition policies."
"I didn't talk about intentions," Hoyer snapped. "I talked about facts."
Cantor aides say he is getting a bum rap for being an "honest broker" for warring factions in the party. But Cantor himself has seemed personally invested in the success of the most contentious of the food stamp
provisions: a floor amendment allowing states to toughen work requirements for mothers with young children and then share in any savings if the households are dropped from the rolls.
Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) was the designated sponsor. But for weeks beforehand, Cantor had promoted the legislation in Republican leadership meetings and spoke on its behalf on the floor.
The amendment is no small matter. It runs 17 pages and is described by Southerland as a virtual bill unto itself. Democrats such as Fudge were furious with its adoption and minutes later that vote contributed to the
collapse of the initial farm bill in June.
But thus far there has been no sign that Cantor is willing to make any concessions to narrow the scope of the amendment while salvaging some of its ideas.
For example, all 50 states could participate in the so-called "pilot program." That number surprises even Senate Republicans sympathetic with experimenting more in this area. A second big issue is how the states use
the savings. All money is fungible, but devoting any food stamp savings to some education or other nutrition purpose could make it more acceptable to some Democrats.
"Many different ideas are being discussed," said a Cantor spokesman. Others familiar with the talks say the majority leader has been unyielding on the amendment.