WASHINGTON The Senate is ready to start conference proceedings to finalize a new farm bill but the House of Representatives has not sent its version of the bill for consideration, the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee said on Monday.
"I'm very concerned that the process start moving this week," Senator Debbie Stabenow said, noting that there are just 24 scheduled legislative days in the Senate before the current bill expires.
The Republican-controlled House on Thursday narrowly passed a farm bill that stripped out the parts that cover food stamps for poor Americans, the costliest part of the bill, over a veto threat from President Barack Obama.
Four days later it has not sent that bill to the Senate, drawing Monday's rebuke from Stabenow.
"We can't go to conference unless we have something that relates to the farm bill from the House," Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, told reporters on a conference call. "We fully expected to receive it in the Senate right away."
Under the conference process, lawmakers from the Senate and House typically meet to work out differences between their respective versions of a bill. But Stabenow said she would be open to other approaches.
The Democratic-run Senate passed its version of the farm bill on June 10 - a five-year, $500 billion measure that would expand taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance and make small cuts to food stamp funding.
Stabenow ruled out passing a farm bill that did not include food stamps. "We could not pass that through the Senate, nor would the president sign that kind of bill," she said.
Food stamp payments would continue without a farm bill, because funding comes through the appropriations process. But Democrats have said the House strategy is to isolate food stamps for larger cuts by making them subject to annual funding.
The current farm bill was extended once before, over the new year, and will expire on September 30 without passage of a new version or a second extension. At that point U.S. farm policy would revert to 1949 "permanent law," which among other things would lead to a doubling of milk prices in U.S. grocery stores.
"Given the strange process we have had in the House, I would support any fair and open process that gets us a bipartisan, comprehensive farm bill," Stabenow said. "We're not going to negotiate with the extreme elements of the House who basically believe we should not support agriculture."
The Senate also passed a bipartisan farm bill in 2012, when the House version was never brought to a vote.
"This feels like 'Groundhog Day,' the movie, to me. Every day we get up and do the farm bill again," said Stabenow.
(Reporting by Ros Krasny; Editing by Leslie Adler)