By Politico Staff
Fallout from the farm bill’s failure is erupting behind closed doors.
Almost a week after Republicans failed to pass the nearly $1 trillion, five-year agricultural package through the House, Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders are feeling the heat from frustrated lawmakers sick of screw-ups.
Republican Reps. Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota separately stood up at a GOP meeting Wednesday and confronted their leadership about its bumbling legislative strategy and inability to figure out a way forward on the massive legislation, according to multiple sources at the meeting.
Noem, who once served in Republican leadership, took aim squarely at Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). She reminded him that he controls the House floor, and she drilled Cantor hard on his precise plans to mop up the mess, several Republicans who attended the meeting said. Cantor wasn’t able to outline a plan that satisfied Noem, and he blamed Democrats for the bill’s defeat.
Noem — usually a quiet figure in GOP circles — also warned the 61 Republicans who opposed the farm bill after voting for tougher work requirements for food-stamp recipients that she will not be supporting them in the future. Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and other lawmakers were later heard on the floor backing Noem in her heated dispute with Cantor.
Cramer, a first-term lawmaker, read aloud an editorial to his colleagues from a North Dakota newspaper, arguing that failing to pass a farm bill could end his brief congressional career. In an interview with POLITICO, Cramer said Republicans — especially committee chairmen — who voted against the farm bill are “jeopardizing the whole majority.”
It’s just another problem for House Republican leadership that’s had a rocky time governing in its second straight term in the majority.
After Boehner barely survived his reelection as speaker in January, he and his top lieutenants have worked to ease their relationship with rank-and-file conservatives. Up until Thursday, they seemed to have made some progress. But that all quickly crumbled when the farm bill went down.
Boehner and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy are trying in their own ways to diffuse anger among the rank and file. Boehner told his members that he was "pissed off" about the farm bill’s fate — he voted for it — and asked for ideas on the road ahead.
McCarthy, speaking first at a small meeting of his vote-counting team and later to the larger House Republican Conference, said he "[takes] responsibility" for the farm bill’s failure.
The California Republican also made a round of calls to his top allies on the whip team late last week following the bill’s demise, taking their temperature about the legislative meltdown. In addition, McCarthy contacted lawmakers who voted against the bill to express his disappointment, according to sources familiar with the discussions.
The surprising farm bill defeat has given way to new frustration with Republican leadership and skepticism about the prospect for legislative successes this Congress. House members close to GOP leadership — including those tasked with counting votes — are more skeptical than ever that their party will be able to avoid a government shutdown and debt downgrade. Not to mention the fact that Republicans will be under major pressure to act on some kind of immigration reform package after the Senate passes its bill this week. Cantor has also said he wants to reform the nation’s education policy.
"I think that if we can’t do something as basic as the farm bill, the agenda moving forward looks very unclear," said Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida, a member of the GOP whip team.
The more acute problem is how Congress now ties up the farm bill. Republicans have latched on to a narrative that places blame squarely on Democrats — namely Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota. Republicans say he was unable to deliver on 40 Democratic votes he promised for the farm bill.
Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), a deputy whip who is close to Cantor and McCarthy, said the main lesson to take from the floor defeat was that Peterson cannot count, but Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland can. Hoyer was not consulted about the farm bill whip count.
Something needs to pass, and Cantor is now privately saying he’s open to moving forward a far more conservative farm bill. There’s even talk about splitting the food-stamp program from the agriculture bill to attract all GOP support.
For now, the frustration is certainly real.
"I would just say, it was a very lively discussion with very pointed insistence from the membership about where do we go next," Lucas said of Wednesday’s GOP meeting. “Because while there are a number of members who may never want to vote on this issue, there’s a whole bunch of people out there — like myself — for who this matters greatly to our districts and us personally."
Republicans aligned with leadership are privately gloating about the failure of the Open Floor Process, where piles of sometimes controversial amendments like the food-stamp cuts are allowed to be debated. Republicans now see it could sink a bill.
"You want to have as open a process as possible, but sometimes it does come back to bite you," said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who saw his highway bill drown in amendments when he chaired the committee.