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Ag chairman defends Cramer on farm bill delays

FARGO, N.D. -- Battling Democratic accusations that he tried to derail the farm bill last year, Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., is getting help from his House Agriculture Committee chairman.

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FARGO, N.D. -- Battling Democratic accusations that he tried to derail the farm bill last year, Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., is getting help from his House Agriculture Committee chairman.

In a conference call with reporters Oct. 27, Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., contended that what might have appeared as the deliberate unraveling of a five-decade compromise between rural and urban interests was really a last-ditch effort to save the bill.

"Let me simply say this, the way the process came together, the challenges that Kevin and I faced in getting the final bill together were not of our making," he said.

Since 1964, there has always been a link between programs helping farmers, supported by rural members of Congress, and programs to help the poor afford food, supported by urban members.

That link broke down for several months in 2013, according to Lucas, who placed much of the blame on "very idealistic food-stamp amendments" by some House Republicans wishing to burnish their credentials with tea party-affiliated conservative groups. It became impossible for Democrats, many of whom have poor urban constituents, to go along.

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George B. Sinner, Cramer's Democratic challenger, said Cramer and Lucas should have fought the tea party but, instead, accommodated it. "He's trying to take credit for resolving problems that he and his party created," Sinner said.

"The partisan bickering over last year's farm bill process between my opponents in this race only reinforces the fact that the 2 party system is broken and we need to change it for good," Jack Seaman, the Libertarian challenger, wrote in an email. He said he prefers to talk about the national debt and foreign policy.

Cramer embraced the tea party movement early on, and Sinner has used that fact to portray him as an extremist. But Cramer said he embraces the grass-roots activists, not the big-moneyed groups that he feels have taken over the movement and tried to drive a wedge between conservatives.

On Oct. 27, Lucas recounted a conversation with a Republican colleague who voted against the farm bill even though it included some tough food-stamp amendments the colleague wanted. "The guy looked at me and said -- and this is not a paraphrase, it's almost an exact quote -- 'Oh chairman, I never intended to vote for the farm bill, I was just running up my score with Club (for Growth) and Heritage (Action for America), FreedomWorks and all those groups.'

"That's when as chairman you have to show a major amount of physical self-control on the floor."

The groups he named are conservative groups affiliated with the tea party movement, some of which threatened to downgrade Republicans who supported the farm bill, putting those Republicans at risk in the next primary against a tea party challenger.

The narrative that Lucas, Cramer and Sinner can agree on is that when the Agriculture Committee began working on the farm bill last year, both Democrats and Republicans thought they had enough votes. When it came time to discuss the food stamp portion of the bill though, it turned out they didn't because tea party Republicans demanded tougher cuts than Democrats expected.

Lucas said he and Cramer decided on a "radical" change of tactics by having the House vote on food stamps and farm programs separately, allowing those that need credit for tough food stamp requirements to get it.

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The intent was to bring both together for a final bill, at which time they hoped all House members would realize that, if it failed, there would be no farm bill, Lucas said.

Sinner said the House's final farm bill was very close to the version in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats -- except the House was eight months late, leaving farmers in a lurch. Cramer and Lucas should have stood up to the tea party at the start, Sinner said.

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