In an unexpected vote, the US House today rejected a five-year, half-a-trillion-dollar farm bill that covers both agricultural programs and food stamps.
Most Democrats and many conservative Republicans banded together to ensure the bill's defeat. What had been a model for bipartisan cooperation turned into yet another example of congressional dysfunction. The bill failed 195-234.
Forty-eight hours ago, the long-stalled farm bill finally seemed like it was on a path to the finish line.
Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., chairman of the Agriculture Committee, began the debate on the House floor with praise for the top Democrat on that panel, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson.
"This bipartisan bill is four years in the making and I could not have had a better partner than my friend from Minnesota, Mr. Peterson," Lucas said.
The pair had worked together as a team all week to block amendments they knew would sink the entire bill.
After two days of debate and almost 100 amendments, aides were cautiously optimistic the bill would pass around lunchtime.
Peterson hoped to get 40 Democrats to support the bill, even though many of them had qualms about the nearly $21 billion in cuts the bill made to food stamp spending over the next decade.
Minnesota Republicans Erik Paulsen and John Kline backed the bill along with Peterson and fellow Democrat Tim Walz. DFLers Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum and Rick Nolan voted against the farm bill and were joined by Republican Michele Bachmann.
Republicans were shocked by the bill's failure to pass. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had gone all out to get the bill passed this time after a similar version died in the House last summer.
GOP aides quickly blamed Peterson for not rounding up enough supportive Democratic votes, although Peterson said, in effect, "not my fault."
"Well, we're not in charge, they're in charge. They lost 60 votes," he said.
Up until the last round of amendment votes, Peterson said he had enough Democrats on board. Then two amendments made it into the bill.
One amendment eliminated a provision authored by Peterson to stabilize the milk market. Eliminating the provision lost some Democratic votes in the final tally, Peterson said.
The bigger blow, Peterson said, was a Republican amendment that passed with just one Democratic vote to allow states to launch pilot programs requiring food stamp recipients to work for their benefits.
"I had people that came up to me and said, 'I was going to stick with you but this is too much,'" Peterson said.
Steve King, R-Iowa, standing nearby Peterson, voted for the bill even though he is among the most conservative members of the House. King said in addition to the food stamp cuts, this farm bill had other policies that conservatives should have liked, such as a greater reliance on crop insurance rather than government payments to farmers.
"Yes, I'd like to cut more out of nutrition and I'd like to see more of a market-oriented ag side of this, but you've got to get to where you can balance those votes."
King said it appears some Republicans may have been swayed by campaigns against the bill led by conservative groups. They argued that the bill's estimated nearly $100 billion annual cost was too high, the food stamp program was too costly, and various farm programs were giveaways to powerful interest groups.
At a press conference earlier this week, Tim Philips, the head of one such group, Americans for Prosperity, threatened GOP House members who backed the farm bill.
"I can't imagine as a Republican, in less than a year, if you're a House member and you're seeking reelection, going to Republican primary voters and explaining this debacle and why you voted for it," Philips said.
So what happens now?
Peterson said his western Minnesota constituents can make do under the status quo.
"If we don't get a bill, in my opinion, we'll get an extension," Peterson said. "It's not the best thing in the world but it's not the worst thing in the world."
If no extension happens, a 1949 farm law kicks in. Ironically, the rejection of this farm bill means no cuts or changes to the food stamp program, which can continue without new legislation. The new bill would have also ended direct payments to farmers. Instead, farmers can expect another government check, due to this deeply divided Congress.