Shutdown talk hampers race to farm bill finish

As I write this on Feb. 7, I just finished reading the Associated Press report that just last night the House passed a short-term spending measure and Senate leaders were closing in on a larger, long-term pact prior to a Feb. 8 deadline for another government shutdown.

The broader agreement would award whopping spending increases to both the Pentagon and domestic federal programs, as well as approve overdue disaster relief money and, perhaps, crucial legislation to increase the government’s borrowing limit and avoid possible default.

Buoyed by the sudden likelihood of a budget pact, lawmakers are on track to avoid a repeat of last month’s government shutdown—though President Donald Trump unexpectedly raised the possibility of closing things down again if he can’t have his way on immigration.

“I’d love to see a shutdown if we can’t get this stuff taken care of,” Trump declared Feb. 6, repeating the sentiment for emphasis. He also said the “stupidity” of the nation’s immigration laws is allowing violent gangs like MS-13 to flourish in the U.S.

Trump’s comments were strikingly disconnected from the progress everyone on Capitol Hill has made.

In this new compromise, the Democratic leadership has dropped their strategy of using the funding fight to extract concessions on immigration to cut a deal that would reap tens of billions of dollars for other priorities—including combatting opioids—while taking their chances on solving the immigration impasse later.

The budget negotiations, conducted chiefly by the Senate’s top leaders, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Chuck Schumer of New York, have intensified in recent days—and the possibility of another government shutdown added urgency to the talks. In addition to the military and domestic spending, the deal taking shape would approve overdue disaster relief money and, perhaps, crucial legislation to increase the government’s borrowing limit and avoid possible default.

Both McConnell and Schumer reported progress the morning of Feb. 6.

“I think we’re on the way to getting an agreement and getting it very soon,” said McConnell.

Prospects for dealing with immigration, however, were as fuzzy as ever. The Senate is slated to begin a debate to address the dilemma of immigrants left vulnerable by the looming expiration of former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Weeks of bargaining have left the two parties divided over how to extend protections for such Dreamer immigrants and a court ruling has blunted a March 5 deadline.

McConnell said Tuesday that while he hopes “we will end up having something,” he was unsure if any proposed measure would get the 60 votes needed for approval.

Getting 60 votes for anything in the Senate these days is very problematic. Add in Trump’s “expect the unexpected” style of governance (witness the desire for a government shutdown in spite of possible compromise from Hill leaders), and there’s evidence that long-term solutions to the nation’s issues aren’t likely in our future.

This should greatly concern members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committee, who have to complete a farm bill by a Sept. 30 deadline, or face current legislation being reverted back to original farm law in the 1930s—at least not without an extension of current programs.

Add in the extra work handed to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-TX, who’s also handling the House Intelligence Committee’s most high-profile work leading the chamber’s investigation into election interference by Russia.

The Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes, R-CA, of California, has recused himself from that portion of the committee’s investigation into Russian interference—his work considered by many to be dysfunctional and ineffectual. So Conaway has taken control of Nunes’ part while retaining his spot as chairmanship on the Agriculture Committee.

Conaway has said numerous times that he has great staff and can handle both jobs, but even Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts did not hold the gavel while he chaired that body’s Intelligence Committee a decade ago.

All of this adds up to a very big slog to passage of a farm bill by that Sept. 30 deadline. We are likely to see more short-term spending bills ahead as Congress continues their election year struggles, so passage of a farm bill may prove to need another miracle maker to get this done.

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Former Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK, could be that miracle maker. Perhaps, the GOP ought to toss out its three-term cycle for chairs rule and re-install Lucas back on Ag and let Conaway spend all his time on Intelligence Committee matters. Lucas made one miracle happen when he chaired the House Agriculture Committee to successful completion of the latest farm bill.

It might be time, frankly, to let Lucas do it.

Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or [email protected].