Lawmakers Eye 2014 Midterms in Farm-Bill Talks

When Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp was running for her North Dakota seat in 2012, she got a little help from House Republicans.

The GOP-controlled House’s inability to pass a farm bill last year bolstered Ms. Heitkamp’s attacks on the Republican Party and on her GOP opponent, even though he had criticized House leaders’ handling of the legislation. Ms. Heitkamp even campaigned with the Senate’s agriculture panel chairwoman, who had just ushered through a bipartisan farm bill.

Now, as the House and Senate struggle to agree on a new farm bill, the lessons of elections like that of Ms. Heitkamp are a factor in the talks. Failure to pass a bill could anger voters in states where the economy is tied to agriculture, while success could rob Democrats of a message they deployed effectively last year and that is already surfacing in 2014 contests.

“One of the reasons I’m in the United States Senate is because the House failed to pass a farm bill last year,” Ms. Heitkamp said. It is an experience she has shared in conversations with House Republicans recently, as lawmakers try again this year to pass a five-year farm bill.

Negotiators have been meeting for weeks, trying to mesh legislation passed by the House and Senate. Lawmakers in both chambers have moved to end a long-standing program of direct federal payments to farmers, the primary source of farm-program savings, expected to top $12 billion over a decade. But they are at odds over how to restructure crop insurance and other programs meant to make up for the loss of those payments, and over the size of cuts to food-stamp programs. Last year, lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on new legislation but passed a one-year extension of existing programs.

If the farm bill stalls again this year, both parties will try to paint the other as responsible for the failure. The dynamic could influence a range of 2014 races in both the House and Senate, including in Montana, where the issue helped Democratic Sen. Jon Tester retain his seat last year. In Iowa, the farm bill is so important that Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, running for an open Senate seat, broke from most in his party to join Republicans in supporting the House’s first, failed attempt to pass a farm bill in June.

“This is going to be a very significant issue,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D., N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which oversees House races for the party. He signaled that Democrats would accuse Republicans of politicizing what had traditionally been a bipartisan bill, in part by demanding big cuts to food stamps. “It fits into the overall theme of a reckless, Republican Congress that injects partisanship and ideology into issues that had always been bipartisan,” he said.

Some conservatives, by contrast, say that lawmakers will be rewarded if they reject a farm bill that spends too much money or ends up resembling “corporate welfare” for farmers. “It’s an opportunity for them to say Washington is not in the business of handing things out to people,” said Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action for America, the lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

The bill is already becoming a point of contention in one of next year’s marquee races. In Arkansas, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor has attacked his 2014 Republican challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton, over his opposition to the June farm bill.

Mr. Cotton’s campaign notes that he opposed only one version of the House farm bill, as did many Republicans, who thought it didn’t do enough to rein in spending on food stamps. But he voted later for two bills that passed the House, when the chamber split the legislation into a bill focusing on farm programs and one on food stamps. The nutrition bill would cut food-stamp programs by $39 billion over 10 years, compared with $4 billion in cuts approved by the Senate.

Last year, Democrats weren’t always successful in making an issue of the farm-bill failure. In South Dakota, GOP Rep. Kristi Noem, a member of the House agriculture panel, won re-election, despite attacks focusing on the farm bill from Democratic challenger Matt Varilek.

Analysts caution that even in states Democrats won or defended, a host of other issues were also at play. Next year, Democrats will be tied to the embattled health law, while Republicans may still face wariness over their role in the government shutdown.

“A farm-bill stalemate or an extension really plays into Democrats’ favor in farm states,” said David Wasserman, a specialist in House politics at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “If a farm bill passes, it could be a feather in the cap of House Republicans who are fighting off the charge they’re a do-nothing Congress.”

Even if passing a farm bill would benefit House Republicans, the internal politics are expected to remain a challenge. Any compromise on food stamps and other funding risks rejection by those on the right looking for big spending cuts. “I don’t see how they come out of the conference with anything that is acceptable to conservatives,” Heritage Action’s Mr. Holler said.

House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) has traditionally been reluctant to bring to the House floor bills that aren’t backed by a majority of House Republicans.

“The Speaker has confidence in [House Agriculture Committee] Chairman [Frank] Lucas and his team to negotiate a strong, reform-minded bill,” Michael Steel, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner, said this past week.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com

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