Arm-twisting. Heated negotiations. Legislative threats.
The lead-up to a Friday vote in the House of Representatives on a massive farm bill has become a messy battle wrought with fights over sugar prices, food assistance programs and now an unrelated but dramatic clash over an issue that has for years proved exceedingly divisive across the Republican Party: immigration.
With Democrats already vowing to oppose the bill, House Republicans will need to pass it with only GOP votes, but it was still unclear Wednesday night whether they had support within their own ranks to do it.
The five-year farm bill was the primary focus of the GOP’s weekly meeting Wednesday morning, according to members who attended. Leaders were still trying to assuage concerns by conservatives concerned with the bill’s assistance to the country’s sugar industry.
The vast majority of the bill’s funding addresses food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Republicans want to require more people to work in order to receive the benefits, extending the mandate to parents of school age children and to those in their 50s. That’s the main reason why Democrats are rejecting the bill – they worry the new requirements will prove too onerous for some of the very beneficiaries in need of the assistance. Those who fail to work or enroll in job training could be locked out for up to three years.
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The 641-page bill also addresses a range of issues related to agriculture, such as livestock disaster programs, conservation, feral swine, farm loan programs and broadband services in rural areas, just to name a few.
Given that the Senate is working on its own version of a farm bill – one that has a less stringent approach on SNAP – it’s a foregone conclusion that the House bill, should it pass, won’t be the final say on the matter, with a possible House-Senate conference looming to hash out the significant differences.
Meanwhile, another fight is threatening to derail the House farm bill, as conservatives explored a strategy that would involve withholding support for the farm bill to get their desired outcome on a separate immigration battle.
At the core of the issue is a brewing fight over a discharge petition, or measure that can bypass the traditional legislative procedures if it gets enough signatures. It’s a rarely successful procedure being used by a group of moderates that could force a vote on legislation to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. If the moderates get enough Republicans to sign on – and they were close as of Wednesday night – it would trigger a floor debate on four competing bills. Whichever bill gets the most votes will then head to the Senate.
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While conservatives would get a vote on their preferred bill, which was authored by Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, they still feel the process is stacked to favor one of the other bills, which has more bipartisan support and would likely get more votes.
So members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus are angling to get a separate floor vote on the Goodlatte bill as soon as possible, in the hopes of killing the discharge petition on the theory the bill can’t be brought to the floor in both situations. But a senior GOP aide said the plan likely wouldn’t work, and no vote on the Goodlatte bill could ultimately kill the discharge petition – without the support of the petition backers themselves.
It’s far from clear how serious the threat is at this point or what leadership will do.
“Well, there’s not enough votes for the farm bill right now,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows told reporters leaving a meeting with the top five GOP leaders in the House.
“It’s kind of all connected at the moment,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry leaving the same meeting. “It doesn’t seem like an ag bill can move until we get this immigration issue worked out satisfactorily.”
Some Republicans were skeptical of the strategy.
“I don’t know why I would want to withhold my vote on something that helps take people out of poverty and gets them into prosperity,” said Texas Rep. Bill Flores, referring to the farm bill’s work requirements in SNAP. “It’s just not good conservative policy.”
Rep. Jeff Denham, the California Republican leading efforts to push the moderate approach with the discharge petition, only said he was “confident” the conservatives’ strategy was “not going to work.”
“It would be disappointing to see an unrelated bill get caught up in this as well,” Denham said, outlaying a counter strategy that would involve a procedural vote. “There are a number of us that could vote against the farm bill as well, and they could certainly try to take down a rule. I think it’s the wrong way, we are elected to solve issues, not try to tear them down.”
CNN’s Phil Mattingly and Tami Luhby contributed to this report.