June 5, 2012 – 11:28 p.m.

Peanuts Gang: Southerners Seek Concessions in Senate Farm Bill

Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss and Louisiana Democrat Mary L. Landrieu are leading a rump group of Southern senators demanding concessions for rice and peanut farmers as their price for helping the farm bill clear a procedural hurdle this week.

A band of more than a dozen Southern senators wants to allow rice and peanut farmers to opt out of a centerpiece provision in the farm bill (S 3240), a new subsidized crop insurance program intended to replace traditional direct price-support payments. The group also includes Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor, Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran and Arkansas Republican John Boozman.

Landrieu derided the subsidized crop insurance plan that Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has made the heart of the bill to reauthorize agriculture and food aid programs. Landrieu said it is “designed for Midwestern farmers, not Southern farmers,” who instead “need price supports” to guard against fluctuations in the commodities markets.

Chambliss expressed confidence that House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., will help Southern lawmakers by preserving some direct payments in the House version of the bill. Southern senators want the Senate version to offer a similar option. “We’re hopeful that we can negotiate it. . . . We’re just not there,” Chambliss said.

Chambliss warned, however, that if the Senate measure fails to address the concerns of many Southern senators, they are weighing steps they can take “if it comes to the floor without getting it fixed.”

Stabenow is continuing talks with Chambliss and his allies, but says she can win any floor fight. “If we do have a cloture vote, we do have the votes,” Stabenow said.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., moved Tuesday to end debate on a motion to proceed to the five-year farm bill, setting up a likely Thursday cloture vote.

Boozman says he and other Southern senators are trying to increase their leverage to extract concessions by threatening to join forces on procedural votes with other critics, including conservatives who oppose spending on farm programs and liberals who oppose cuts in nutrition programs. Still, he acknowledged their preference is to cut a deal and not block the bill.

Several outside groups are backing the Southern senators and lobbying for direct payments. “We have support from a large proportion of Southern senators,” said Reece Langley, a vice president for government affairs at the USA Rice Federation, representing 10,000 rice farmers.

The drive by Chambliss and Landrieu is complicated by a pair of Southern deficit hawks who oppose farm subsidies: Rand Paul of Kentucky and Jim DeMint of South Carolina.“We need to get the agriculture business back more towards the free market,” DeMint said.

Despite the independent stands of Paul and DeMint, Merle Black, a professor of political science at Emory University, said most Southern senators are likely to unite to defend rice and peanut farmers. “The power of Southern senators has long come from their ability to block things, in order to get what they want. Agricultural interests are something that bind together senators in the region across party lines,” Black said.