Farm Bill Blocked in House After Immigration-Vote Deal Collapses

(Bloomberg) -- A five-year $867 billion farm bill backed by the Trump administration was rejected in the U.S. House after GOP leaders were unable to quell a rebellion by a group of conservatives who are demanding new restrictions on legal immigration.

The failure to pass the farm legislation, which would have imposed new work requirements for food stamps, is an embarrassing blow to House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is being pressured by multiple Republican factions as the party is trying to defend its majority in the November congressional elections. It’s also another indicator of how Ryan’s influence over GOP House members is waning after announcing he won’t seek re-election.

GOP leaders said they would bring up the bill again, possibly as early as next week. Current farm programs -- including subsidies for farmers and government-backed crop insurers -- begin to expire Sept. 30 without new legislation.

Lawmakers voted 198 to 213 to defeat the measure Friday after members of the Freedom Caucus, comprising about three dozen conservative Republicans, rebuffed an offer from GOP leadership to schedule a June vote on a bill that would eliminate a diversity visa lottery and impose other limits in exchange for temporary protection for young undocumented immigrants.

Democrats also opposed the legislation, H.R. 2, because of the work requirements it would impose of recipients of food stamps. Thirty Republicans defected on the bill, including moderates who had said they were opposed to the food stamp changes.

President Donald Trump “is disappointed in the result of today’s vote,” Lindsay Walters, deputy White House press secretary, said in a statement. Trump supported adding work requirements to the food stamp program. The administration “will continue to work with Congress to pass a farm bill on time.”

The immigration issues has been simmering in the House for months. Several Freedom Caucus members said they didn’t trust the party leadership to hold a vote later on the immigration legislation and instead want it to take place before a the farm legislation.

“We’ve been promised a vote again and again,” said Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican and member of the Freedom Caucus.

Immigration Votes

Mark Meadows of North Carolina, the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, said the farm measure’s defeat isn’t fatal. “Hopefully we’ll fix the farm bill and the immigration bill at the same time,” he said.

Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 3 House Republican, said leaders would seek to address lawmakers’ immigration concerns and keep working on getting the farm legislation passed.

The legislation is popular among rural Republicans but criticized by others in the party for what’s seen as wasteful farm-program and food-stamp spending.

“This is not good for the United States ag economy, it certainly will leave a lot of ag producers scratching their heads about our Republican majority and moving these important pieces of legislation through the House,” said Jodey Arrington, a Texas Republican, whose constituents include farmers.

Rejection of the measure exposed a rift between moderates and conservatives.

“For how long will @HouseGOP leaders continue to accept and facilitate the tyranny of the minority of the majority?” Republican Carlos Curbelo of Florida wrote on Twitter.

Forcing Ryan

Curbelo, whose South Florida district includes many immigrants from Latin America, is leading an attempt to force Ryan to schedule votes on four different immigration proposals using a procedure called a discharge petition.

If at least 25 Republicans and all 193 Democrats get behind it, that would force Ryan to act on scheduling a vote. Despite Ryan’s opposition, 20 Republicans have signed the petition so far, bringing the total number of lawmakers backing the effort to 196.

The bills that would get votes include legislation favored by conservatives and one backed by Democrats. The Freedom Caucus said one of their goals in blocking the farm bill was trying to blunt the petition effort. They argue if it’s successful, the result might be passage of immigration legislation granting permanent legal status to some young undocumented immigrants, which would anger the core of the Republican voting base.

Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, a member of the GOP leadership team, said that within hours there likely will be enough signatures on the petition to force the votes.

That’s “exactly what I feared if the farm bill went down,” he said. “We had enough members who were willing to vote yes who had a commitment to vote on immigration, but wanted to hijack the process to get an immigration vote before they actually fulfill their pledge that they made to their constituents on the farm bill.”

The farm legislation, sponsored by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican, survived an attempt add a provision to revamp a controversial sugar program. Some lawmakers, with support from candy-makers, unsuccessfully sought to eliminate production limits that keep sugar prices higher for growers.

Conaway said in a statement that Friday’s vote is a “setback” but that “we sill deliver a strong, new farm bill on time as the President of the United States has called on us to do.”

The legislation would shift some money from benefits to workforce training, while increasing the number of people required to comply with work requirements. Republicans say the requirements are needed to move food stamp recipients into the labor force at a time of worker shortages. Democrats oppose those provisions because they say they’ll reduce benefits and increase paperwork without effectively moving people into the workforce.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Republicans should now drop cuts to food stamp benefits and work with Democrats on a new bill.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.