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ND senators optimistic on passage of farm bill

By Patrick Springer

Forum News Service

FARGO — North Dakota’s U.S. senators are optimistic Congress will pass a new farm bill because savings it could deliver will help forge a federal budget compromise.

Under a bill that passed the Senate, a new farm bill would save $24 billion over 10 years. The revamped farm bill shifts away from direct payments and would instead strengthen crop insurance.

The Senate and House have been at loggerheads over a farm bill because the Republican-led House wants to make much deeper cuts to food stamps than the Democrat-led Senate.

A conference committee will try to reach agreement, with farm state senators hoping a new farm bill will pass this year.

Meanwhile, according to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a key date in ongoing efforts to forge a budget compromise falls on Dec. 13, the deadline for the budget leaders in the House and Senate to reach agreement.

If a deal is struck by the deadline, falling right before the holidays, it would bolster consumer confidence and help strengthen the economic recovery, said the North Dakota Democrat.

Heitkamp is optimistic because she believes Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the House Budget Committee chairman, has presidential aspirations, and a budget deal would help his prospects.

“It would be a huge feather in his cap getting a compromise budget passed,” Heitkamp told The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead’s Editorial Board last week.

It was Heitkamp’s first meeting with the Editorial Board since she took office in January after beating former Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., in a narrow victory.

The budget, farm bill and immigration bill have been among a slate of issues that have dominated Heitkamp’s first months in the Senate.

A new immigration bill also would help the budget and economy, she said. A Congressional Budget Office analysis predicted it could reduce the deficit by $158 billion over 10 years. The Senate passed an immigration reform bill, but the House has not.

Heitkamp said she is “cautiously optimistic” agreements will be reached on the budget in the wake of the unpopular and costly federal government shutdown and flirtation with a breach of the debt limit.

In an earlier session with The Forum newspaper’s Editorial Board last week, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he is optimistic that a new farm bill and budget agreement will come together.

“We think we have some momentum now,” Hoeven said of conference committee negotiations that soon will start to resolve differences between the House and Senate over a new farm bill and food stamp spending.

Hoeven and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., are Senate members of the farm bill conference committee, set to open talks this week.

On the critical gap in willingness to cut nutrition programs, Hoeven predicts a compromise could be struck in the range of $30 billion in savings over 10 years. That compares to Senate cuts of $4 billion and House cuts of $59 billion.

“Food stamps is going to be the toughest part” in reaching a farm bill, Hoeven said. Nutrition programs account for about 80 percent of farm bill spending, he said.

A key to reining in long-term federal spending involves restraining rising health costs, which now account for 17.9 percent of gross domestic product and will reach 20 percent in 2021 if current trends continue.

Medicare reform could be good for North Dakota and Minnesota because both states deliver health care that is comparatively low-cost yet high in quality.

In effect, both states are penalized for good performance, a chronic disparity that would help balance the federal budget if fixed, Heitkamp said.

Heitkamp has been a member, along with Klobuchar, of 14 Senate moderates in both parties working to forge budget consensus.

Reaching budget agreement, and restoring normal budgeting and appropriations procedures after a lapse of four years, is critical to freeing gridlock in Washington, Heitkamp said.

“If that could happen, we could get a successful Congress,” she said.

Forum News Service

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