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State politicians lay blame as farm bill stalls in Congress

FARGO -- Members of Congress are heading home this weekend for a five-week holiday, leaving the 2012 farm bill in limbo.

North Dakota politicians -- regardless of party labels -- aren't happy.

But their universal disappointment isn't stopping them from pointing fingers and laying blame, especially as the contentious November election looms three months away.

"The stalling out, really the derailing, of the farm bill in the House is incredibly disappointing and pretty inexcusable," North Dakota Democratic U.S. House candidate Pam Gulleson said during a conference call with state media Friday. "The blame lies completely on House leadership ... and really on (North Dakota Republican Rep.) Rick Berg for not being able to garner support among his members."

For his part, Berg has tried to flex political muscle in the past couple weeks. He's criticized and put pressure on GOP leaders for not acting on the farm bill, which has been ready for a House vote for almost a month.

"The time for a farm bill is now," Berg said in a statement Friday. "If House leadership won't allow a vote on the farm bill, we will use every tool available in our continued effort to push for one. I refuse to sit back and watch our farmers and ranchers face uncertainty while Washington plays political games."

The Senate passed a 2012 farm bill in June that would save about $2.3 billion a year. Soon after, the House Agriculture Committee passed its own version, which saves about $3.5 billion annually, primarily from deeper cuts to nutrition programs than called for in the Senate bill.

Members of the North Dakota and Minnesota congressional delegations said at the time they expected differences in the Senate and House versions to be ironed out in a conference committee.

But the bill has yet to reach the House floor.

House GOP leaders have resisted calls to bring the farm bill to the floor for a vote, and they even did an about-face on efforts last week to at least allow a one-year extension of the existing farm law, which expires Sept. 30.

Instead, the House left Washington on Friday after having passed what North Dakota politicians said is a meager compromise: a $383 million emergency drought relief package that aims to help farmers stricken by a rainless growing season.

"It's very short-sighted," Gulleson said. "It's not what we elect people to Congress to do."

Benefits from the package likely won't be seen by farmers and ranchers until at least September, though, because senators didn't act on the bill before they left on their break.

The Associated Press reported that Senate Democratic leadership said the relief package was insufficient and that the House should instead consider the five-year farm policy bill the Senate passed in June.

Farm legislation has been a campaign issue throughout most of the summer in North Dakota's U.S. Senate race, where Berg is the GOP candidate.

Democrat Heidi Heitkamp has criticized Berg for not using what influence he says he has to convince his GOP colleagues to bring the farm bill to the floor.

Heitkamp brought Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., to Fargo last Saturday to further reiterate her public support for the farm bill and to talk about how the legislation affects rural states.

"Our farmers and ranchers deserve the certainty that comes with a five-year farm bill, not more empty promises from Rep. Berg in Washington," Heitkamp's campaign manager Tessa Gould said this week.

Meanwhile, Berg's congressional office has been quick to emphasize Berg's continued efforts to get the 2012 farm bill to the House floor.

On Friday, Berg helped launch a petition effort to force a House vote, a procedural move that would bypass GOP leaders' scheduling power.

The petition requires 218 signatures, or a majority of the chamber.

Republican U.S. House candidate Kevin Cramer, who is running against Gulleson, was in Washington last week to meet with GOP leaders, including Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California.

"I strongly urged them to get something done," Cramer said. "The choice of inaction of voting on the House floor and getting it reconciled in the Senate demonstrates the dysfunction of Washington that has to be addressed."

While House leaders told Cramer they understand the importance of farm legislation, "you could also sense in all of them: They have to have something that they can get 218 members to vote for," Cramer said.

"There was more of a discussion about the politics of it as opposed to philosophy: How you get 218 people to agree on something," he added. "I don't pretend to know where they're going to get the votes."

Once Congress reconvenes on Sept. 10, there will be eight working days left in the month before the current farm law expires.

Between now and Election Day on Nov. 6, Congress is scheduled to be in session for only 13 days.

Gulleson is pessimistic about the prospect of progress on the 2012 farm bill yet this year.

"I'm greatly concerned about that," Gulleson said. "The needs are now. ... A farm bill is so important to this country."