By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican leaders in the House of Representative hit a dead end on Wednesday in an effort to revive the $500 billion, five-year U.S. farm bill, increasing the likelihood that Congress will opt for a second extension of current law.
Following the surprise defeat of the bill last month, House Republican leaders floated an approach this week championed by conservative Tea Party members: splitting the bill in two.
They suggested a bill that focused on farm subsidies only and would leave the question of food stamps for later.
But informal vote counts showed insufficient support for a separate farm subsidy bill, a Republican leadership aide told Reuters.
Lawmakers are months late in writing a new farm law, divided on how much funding should be cut from programs from farm subsidies and conservation programs to food stamps for the poor. Without action by September 30, farm subsidy rates will revert to a 1949 "permanent" law that could, among other things, lead to a doubling of milk prices at the grocery store.
"I cannot recall when it has been more difficult to move a farm bill forward," said analyst Mark McMinimy of Guggenheim Partners. He said the extension of current law is becoming more likely.
The Senate passed its version of the farm bill in early June. It calls for smaller overall cuts in spending than the House bill, and would cut food stamps by one-fourth of the House's target. Negotiators from the House and Senate would have to reconcile differences for a final bill. Both bills would streamline conservation programs and spend more on taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance.
Farm lobbyists said Republican House leaders may try to build support for another attempt at a split bill. Alternately, they could re-tool the defeated bill and present it for a vote. An extension of current law was a third option.
Two prominent conservative groups, the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, came out this week against the subsidy bill because no amendments would be allowed.
"It is still loaded down with market-distorting giveaways to special interests with no path established to remove the government's involvement in the agriculture industry," Club for Growth, a group that favors limited government, said in a blog post on Wednesday.
Club for Growth said it would include the bill in its scorecard on whether lawmakers were fiscally conservative enough to deserve re-election.
A sizable portion of House Republicans want larger cuts in farm spending and food stamps. Some 62 Republicans voted against the farm bill on June 20. Most House Democrats voted against it because of cuts to food stamps, which account for three-fourths of farm bill spending.
"I don't think they have the votes for that alternative," Assistant Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said of the split bill. Hoyer said Republican leaders remain unwilling to compromise with Democrats.
To make the farm subsidy bill more attractive to conservatives, Republican leaders pledged to repeal the 1949 "permanent" law and its sky-high support rates, written for an long-ago era of farm surpluses and low commodity prices. But the ban on amendments was unacceptable to conservatives.
"They've got a bull's eye on the farm bill," rather than just food stamps, said a lobbyist with a major agricultural producers' group.
The board of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest U.S. farm group, voted unanimously this week against splitting the farm bill and against repeal of the 1949 law. The board of the No. 2 farm group, the National Farmers Union, was also unanimous in calling for the bill to remain intact.
After the farm bill's defeat in June, analysts said an extension of the 2008 law was the easiest way to resolve the impasse. Congress already extended that law once, after it expired in September 2012.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and David Lawder, editing by Ros Krasny and David Gregorio)