Monday, May 21News That Matters

Farm Bill's Future Uncertain After House Conservatives Reject Immigration Deal


Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) praised Rep. Mike Conaway (R., Texas), left, for his committee’s work on the farm bill.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) praised Rep. Mike Conaway (R., Texas), left, for his committee’s work on the farm bill.


Photo:

J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

By

WASHINGTON—A group of hard-line conservatives rejected an immigration deal that was intended to unlock Republican votes needed to pass a five-year, $867 billion farm bill, leaving the measure up in the air on the eve of a scheduled House vote.

The House Freedom Caucus, a group of roughly three-dozen conservatives who have made immigration policy one of their signature issues, turned back a proposal put forth by House Majority

Whip Steve Scalise

(R., La.). The conservatives represent crucial bloc of votes for the farm bill, and they are using their clout to put pressure on leaders to stop an unrelated effort to bring immigration legislation to a vote.

After a closed-door meeting of the conservatives, the Freedom Caucus’s chairman,

Rep.  Mark Meadows

(R., N.C.), told reporters that “at this point, there is no deal to be made.”

Leaving the Capitol for the day, Mr. Scalise said a resolution remained elusive. “We’ve been making a lot of headway,” he said. Freedom Caucus members planned a call late Thursday to discuss their options.

GOP leaders have been working to find a path forward on immigration policy, which has become a front-burner issue because a group of centrist Republicans is attempting to force a series of votes on the floor using a legislative maneuver called a “discharge petition.” They have nearly enough votes to pass the petition.

The wrangling has clouded the future of the farm bill, which binds federal support for farmers with food-stamp benefits for the poor, elderly and disabled.

Congress would need to pass an extension to maintain funding for current farm-safety-net programs if lawmakers don’t pass a new farm bill by the time the current law expires, on Sept. 30. Without the new legislation, funding would lapse for dozens of smaller programs, including assistance to new farmers, trade and rural development.

“We are concerned we will slip behind,” said

Megan DeBates,

director of affairs for the Organic Trade Association, who worries that lapsing funds for agriculture research will make U.S. farmers less competitive than those abroad.

The impasse reflects a confluence of political forces that for years have threatened to disrupt the basic functioning of government. Democrats oppose the farm bill largely because Republicans included tighter requirements for food-stamp recipients. Without Democratic support, Republicans are trying to advance the farm bill on their own, giving leverage to the Freedom Caucus.

“We’ve got a farm bill that must pass, and we’ve got a discharge petition, and those two are making for a perfect storm,” Mr. Meadows said. “You never know what Congress can do when you have a deadline that’s less than 24 hours away,” he said, referring to Friday’s scheduled vote on the farm bill.

GOP centrists facing tough re-election fights in November are clamoring for an immigration vote that could widen their appeal at home, such as a series of immigration bills, including ones with a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants known as Dreamers.

The discharge petition was initiated by lawmakers including

Carlos Curbelo

of Florida and

Jeff Denham

of California, vulnerable House Republicans in heavily Hispanic districts that

Hillary Clinton

won in 2016. It gained momentum with the support of other vulnerable Republicans and an assortment of others from districts with agricultural interests that rely on immigrant workers.

Republican centrists are just five GOP votes shy of the 218 signatures needed to trigger the immigration votes, assuming all Democrats later join them.

“We have the commitments,” Mr. Curbelo said. “There’s no rush—we have a good amount of time to get where we need to get.”

—Siobhan Hughes contributed to this article.

Write to Joshua Jamerson at joshua.jamerson@wsj.com, Jesse Newman at jesse.newman@wsj.com and Heather Haddon at heather.haddon@wsj.com

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