House leaders wary of farm, postal bill showdowns

By Jim Abrams

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, July 22 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this July 10, 2012, file photo, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, speak to the media at the Capitol in Washington, as Rep. Nan Hayworth, R-NY., House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., House Speaker John Boehner, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, listen.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — Senate-passed bills to cut farm subsidies and food stamps and overhaul the financially teetering Postal Service have been put on hold by House Republican leaders wary of igniting internal party fights or risking voters' ire three months before the election.

The House is scheduled this week to take up a bill to replace the Obama administration's offshore drilling plan, and the Senate will ignore it, and some measures to reduce government red tape. What's not on the schedule are a farm bill important to farmers coping with a drought and a Postal Service bill dealing with politically unpopular but inevitable post office closings and a scaling back of mail delivery.

"There is no excuse not to bring the farm bill to the floor," Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said Friday. "We've wasted the last two weeks on political messaging bills that are going nowhere."

That doesn't appear likely to change before Congress departs for a five-week August recess. In the final week before the break, the Republican-controlled House is set to vote on a bill to extend for one year the Bush-era tax cuts, including those for wealthier people. Again, that's a bill that the Senate would reject, but it will lay down stakes as the election approaches.

The Democratic-led Senate is doing its own political messaging.

In the past week it tried to bring up doomed bills to force outside groups, mainly conservative, to disclose their wealthy donors and to discourage the outsourcing of jobs, a subtle dig at Mitt Romney and his former private equity company that was involved in relocating jobs overseas.

That doesn't leave much time for the farm and postal bills, which affect the future of food production and mail delivery but generate controversies that politicians would prefer to avoid in an election year.

The farm bill puts fiscal conservatives from rural districts in a position of having to vote against federal subsidies for farmers and could force Democrats to vote for cuts to the federal food stamp program. The postal bill might require lawmakers to decide on shutting post offices or terminating Saturday service.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., co-author of the Postal Service bill that passed the Senate in April, said the House's "refusal or inability to act is making a bad situation worse by creating more uncertainty, further undermining confidence in the Postal Service's future."

This politicking has frustrated Republicans as well.

Two dozen House Democrats and 38 Republicans, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, a member of the GOP leadership, wrote a letter last week urging House leaders to bring up the farm bill before the August recess. "The message from our constituents and rural America is clear: We need a farm bill now," said the letter, organized by Republican Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Democrat Peter Welch of Vermont.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California was on board, saying "inaction means economic, nutritional and employment crisis throughout our rural communities." Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack appeared before White House reporters to urge Congress to act on the farm bill and to revive expired disaster assistance programs in the face of the worst drought to hit farmers in decades.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said in an interview with the radio program AgriTalk that he had "politely and respectfully" informed his leadership that his committee had approved a bipartisan farm bill and that "as soon as possible, it was my hope and the hope of the committee, that we would have floor time."

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