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House, Senate leaders predict swift passage of U.S. farm bill

Source: Reuters - Tue, 28 Jan 2014 20:40 GMT
Author: Reuters
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By Eric Beech

WASHINGTON, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees are optimistic that the long-overdue U.S. farm bill will pass, although the House of Representatives vote set for Wednesday could be the more difficult hurdle.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas said on a conference call with reporters on Tuesday that there are a number of House members - both liberal and conservative - who are opposed to the massive piece of legislation unveiled on Monday by congressional negotiators.

"I've always known that the folks at both ends of the spectrum would not support us," said Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican. "It's the coalition of the folks in the middle who want to get things done ... who will pass this bill."

"If it was easy, it wouldn't be the farm bill," he added.

Lucas said liberal members objected to cuts of about $800 billion a year, or about 1 percent, in funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, which goes to low-income families to buy food.

The cut was twice that proposed in the farm bill passed last year by the Democratic-led Senate.

At the same time, many conservatives thought the savings in the overall bill, an estimated $23 billion to $24 billion compared with current funding, wasn't enough.

Conservative pressure groups Heritage Action and Club for Growth urged a "no" vote on the bill on Tuesday, and said they would include the results in their scorecards of members' voting records for 2014.

House members on Tuesday took a procedural vote that clears the way for a farm bill debate and final vote on Wednesday.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow sounded more confident about the vote in the Democrat-run Senate, which could come as early as next week. There is a "strong bipartisan coalition" supporting the bill, she said.

Both Lucas and Stabenow said they had "every indication" from the White House that President Barack Obama would sign the bill.

KEEPING MEAT COOL

Monday's agreement on the legislation, which will carry a price tag of almost $1 trillion over a decade, came after lawmakers spent months ironing out differences over food stamps, crop insurance, farm subsidies and other issues contained in earlier House and Senate legislation.

Despite last-minute lobbying from the meat industry, so-called country of origin labeling (COOL) remained in the bill. The provision requires meat to be labeled as to where animals are born, grown and processed.

COOL backers, including consumer groups and ranchers, say consumers have a right to know where their meat originates. U.S. meatpackers say the law imposes unnecessary costs on the industry and violates free trade provisions.

"The votes were not there" in either the House or Senate to repeal COOL, Stabenow said.

Lucas said removing the labeling law could have endangered agreement on the full bill.

Another contentious issue put to rest on Monday was an amendment from Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa, which was intended to block a California law requiring that all eggs sold in the state come from chickens kept in non-confining cages.

The King amendment passed in the House, but Stabenow said it was dropped from the final bill in light of "overwhelming opposition" among the House-Senate negotiators.

Animal welfare advocates, state legislators and others had decried the amendment.

King said California violated the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. Opponents said it could have broader consequences beyond California and invalidate hundreds of state laws on animal protection and food safety.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in November that the amendment "would create legal challenges and confusion in the marketplace."

Several large U.S. farm groups urged swift passage of the legislation.

"This bill provides funding for important programs in conservation, research and trade that help keep America's wheat industry productive and competitive on a global scale," said Bing Von Bergen, a wheat farmer from Moccasin, Montana, who is president of the National Association of Wheat Growers. (Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Ros Krasny and Jan Paschal)

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