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Published September 09, 2013, 09:29 AM

Farm bill action takes the backseat

Rural lawmakers will go back to Washington with more instructions from their constituents on how to vote on whether to give President Barack Obama authority to act in Syria than on how to handle the farm bill or a Republican proposal to cut food stamps.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

PONCA CITY, Okla. — Rural lawmakers will go back to Washington with more instructions from their constituents on how to vote on whether to give President Barack Obama authority to act in Syria than on how to handle the farm bill or a Republican proposal to cut food stamps. At town meetings held last week by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., Syria was the main topic of discussion.

Both the House and the Senate are scheduled to reconvene on Sept. 9. Farm bills usually cover both farm programs and food stamps, but in June a comprehensive farm bill failed on the House floor. In July, House Republicans passed a farm program-only farm bill, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has said he plans to bring up a bill to cut $40 billion out of the food stamp program over 10 years. After that vote, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is expected to name conferees on the bill to meet with the already-named Senate conferees.

At a Sept. 4 town hall meeting in an oil and farm town in northern Oklahoma, Lucas gave a lengthy explanation of the difficulties in passing the farm bill, but also noted that the Syria vote could slow down the farm bill once again.

Lucas acknowledged that the Syria issue had “lit up the phones” in his office since Obama said he would ask Congress to endorse his actions. Lucas said he had not made up his mind about how to vote, but is inclined to vote against another U.S. action in the Middle East.

“If you really want to be in Syria you better make a strong case,” Lucas said. When he opened up the floor for questions here and at another town hall meeting in nearby Ponca City the same morning, it was clear that no one at either meeting wanted the U.S. to get further involved in Syria.

Larry King, a retired Protestant minister in Ponca City, said “The people in Syria have been fighting since the time of Abraham. They are not going to quit. We are just going to go over there and make enemies.” He also said that if the Keystone pipeline were approved to bring fuel from Canada “we wouldn’t have to worry about that” — a line that got him applause.

Many rural lawmakers including House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., signed a letter to President Obama urging him to ask for congressional consent before taking action in Syria.

No one in Ponca City asked about the farm bill or food stamps. In Brownell, a nearby town where Lucas held a town meeting later the same day, one farmer, Rick Jeans, asked him if he thinks there will be a two-year extension.

Lucas, sounding relieved to be on a more comfortable subject, said, “Now we cut to the chase, the things that mean dollars and cents at home.”

Lucas said he doesn’t think there will be another extension and believes that the House Republican and Democratic leadership now think they need to pass a bill this year. He added that he is not sure the nutrition bill will pass but thinks conferees will be appointed before the end of September. There is “always a possibility” that Syria and the need to continue funding the government could interfere with that prediction, he said.

Both Republican and Democratic staffers confirmed last week that House and Senate staff have completed the “side-by-side” comparisons of farm bill provisions except for nutrition since the House has not passed that bill. But the aides said the “preconference” staff meetings that usually precede members’ action have not taken place since the House does not have conferees.

Lucas said the biggest hurdle in finalizing the farm bill will be settling the differences between the Senate and House on the commodity title.

The American Farm Bureau Federation mounted a “bring on the heat” campaign to encourage farmers to tell House members during the recess to pass the farm bill and immigration reform legislation, but Jeans said afterward that most farmers are too busy harvesting to attend a town hall at this time of the year.

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