Roberts preps new draft bill for upcoming conference

Marc Heller, E&E News reporter

Originally Published: Wednesday, August 29, 2018 at E&E News

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts said yesterday he aims to have a new draft farm bill ready by the time a House-Senate conference committee meets on the legislation next week.

The Kansas Republican told reporters the top four lawmakers on the House and Senate agriculture committees discussed the 2018 farm bill on a conference call yesterday, as they try to iron out differences on nutrition, conservation and other aspects of the five-year measure.

The 2014 farm bill expires at the end of September.

"I think that went well," Roberts said of the discussion with Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) and ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.).

Asked whether he expects to present a draft conference report to the panel at its first meeting Sept. 5, Roberts said: "That's the goal. We're not there yet. More meetings and more phone calls."

With the expiration of the current farm bill looming, and midterm elections weeks later, pressure is growing on the Republican-led Congress to complete a bill before a potential flip of the House to Democratic control.

Roberts said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Republican senators at their weekly lunch meeting yesterday that although details divide lawmakers, the paramount issue is to get a bill done.

"The leader emphasized that again and again and again, so now we have people's attention," Roberts said.

The House and Senate versions diverge on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, for which the House proposed new work-related qualification requirements, and on conservation, with the House proposing to eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program.

Some of the conservation savings would go to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, but that and CSP have slightly different missions, and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has been working to defeat the proposal.

In the House, Conaway has said the conservation section was a joint effort with Peterson, who didn't raise objections until Democratic lawmakers started complaining. On changes in SNAP, Conaway has said a bill without tighter work requirements can't pass the House. The farm bill passed the House in June with no Democratic votes (E&E Daily, June 22).

Asked about the SNAP negotiations, Roberts said the most important goal is to pass a bill. But generally, he said, talks among leaders seem to be making progress.

The Senate-passed version would accomplish similar program integrity goals for SNAP, but in a way that's more bipartisan, Roberts has said.

With the first conference meeting a week away, interest groups and lawmakers opposed to certain provisions are stepping up their efforts. If Congress cannot pass a bill in time, a short extension may be likely, kicking the matter to the lame-duck period after the elections or into next year.

Yesterday, 101 House Democrats wrote to conferees, opposing provisions in the House version on conservation and forest management, as well as a transfer of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland — a Superfund site — to the Treasury Department before a cleanup is done.

Two groups — Defenders of Wildlife and the Ashland, Ore.-based Geos Institute — also wrote to conferees, urging rejection of forest provisions that would ease regulations around forest-thinning projects, including bigger exemptions from the National Environmental Policy Act in areas determined to be at greater risk of wildfire.

Proponents say the Forest Service needs the ability to move faster, and on a bigger scale, to reduce wildfire risks posed by overgrowth and dead or dying trees.

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