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."
The Senate passed its version of the farm bill last month, a five-year, $500 billion package that makes fundamental changes to federal safety net programs, including eliminating direct payments to farmers who don't plant anything. It also reauthorizes an expired livestock disaster assistance program. Lucas' committee, by a strong bipartisan vote, has approved similar legislation. The House bill would cut $35 billion from the deficit over 10 years, compared with $23 billion in the Senate bill.
The current farm bill expires at the end of September, and "time is short," wrote the National Association of Wheat Growers, the National Corn Growers Association and 44 other farm groups. The farm bill "is among the most important pieces of legislation Congress will consider this year" and "we reject calls for delay."
But the House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have brushed aside pressures to bring the bill up. Besides the focus on election-year topics, there's a reluctance to spend time on a farm bill that could produce hundreds of amendments and might not pass.
Some conservatives dislike the bill because of its high cost and its continued federal subsidies for farmers. They are certain to try to increase cuts to the food stamp program, which consumes some 80 percent of the farm bill budget, nearly $80 billion a year. Some Democrats, on the other hand, might vote against the bill because they object to cuts the committee already made to the food stamp programs, about $1.6 billion a year.
"No decisions have been made on the farm bill as yet," Boehner told reporters Thursday without saying when a decision might be made.
The situation is similar for the Postal Service bill.
The Senate-approved bill gives the agency an $11 billion cash infusion and reduces future retiree health payments while delaying a move to five-day delivery for two years. A bill that emerged from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last October was more aggressive in cutting costs, raising Democratic criticism that it would put more federal workers out of jobs.
The agency is losing $25 million a day and faces two payment deadlines — of $5.5 billion on Aug. 1 and $5.6 billion at the end of September — for future retiree health costs. Without congressional action the service will be forced to default. Congress has extended those payment deadlines in the past and could do it again.