FARGO (AP) - A North Dakota Republican senator who has been asked to help negotiate a compromise with the House on a new farm bill told state agriculture leaders Wednesday he could use their help in lobbying big-city lawmakers.
Sen. John Hoeven has spent the last two days in Bismarck and Fargo talking with representatives of farm groups about crop insurance, conservation regulations, target prices and other agriculture programs. One general theme outweighed the specifics of farm policy.
"No. 1, they are telling me, they want a farm bill," Hoeven said after Wednesday's meeting. "We need to get into conference. And the sooner the better."
Hoeven is one of the farm bill conferees for the Senate, which has approved a bipartisan five-year bill to govern ag programs and food stamps. The Republican-controlled House doesn't like the Senate version and has refused to name its negotiators.
Hoeven is asking farmers to help him convince lawmakers from "urban and suburban" areas of the country to get behind a farm bill.
"People who come from ag states like North Dakota obviously are totally on board," Hoeven told the group. "We need to talk to voters who are not necessarily aggies."
It will be necessary to get support from some of "those borderline guys" in Congress, Hoeven said.
Although there are several differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, the road block to the bargaining table is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The House bill covers farm programs only, splitting off nutrition programs into a separate measure in order to seek deeper cuts to food stamps.
Republicans want to cut food stamps by as much as $4 billion annually, downsizing a program they say has become bloated. That's twice as deep as what was in the original farm bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee, and much steeper than cuts passed by the full Senate.
Hoeven told the group that all the dollar figures are estimates and it's too early to get "hung up on numbers as absolutes." He said afterward that the food stamp debate should not stop the House from naming its conferees.
"We're going to have to have a compromise on the food stamp number anyway," Hoeven said. "So let's get after it. This takes everybody to come to the table to get it done."
Most of the farm leaders in Fargo seemed to favor the Senate bill over the House version. Dave Berg, CEO of American Crystal Sugar Co., said afterward he has no preference because the sugar program has equal treatment in each bill.
"We just want to see it enacted," Berg said. "Long term, we need to have a farm bill in place."
Although Wednesday's meeting was meant to hear specific complaints from various farm groups, one farm leader asked the group to resist defending their own programs over others.
"I feel this divide and conquer effort that's going on in Washington," said Nick Sinner, executive director of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association. "We certainly don't need us fighting amongst ourselves this last month or so."