Photo by Don O’Brien.

When the Senate passed its version of the farm bill, we at Grist had to admit that, for all the flaws, it “wasn’t all bad news.” Some of the worst aspects of the bill (like giveaways to the insurance industry and to big commodity farmers) were reined in by several late-breaking amendments, and federal nutrition programs (“food stamps”) were “only” cut by $4.5 billion over the next 10 years. That may not sound so great, but it’s all relative; farm bill analysts have been warning for months that the House version would be much worse.

In fact, later today, we’ll find out for sure just how much worse it can get. The House Agriculture Committee is scheduled to release its draft of the farm bill tonight — and according to Politico’s David Rogers, the House GOP has indeed forced far deeper (you might even say extreme) cuts to food stamps as the price for passage. According to Rogers’ sources, the House version of the farm bill will cut $16.5 billion over 10 years from food stamps alone.

(Update: Shortly after we published this post, the House released its draft. And that number was right.)

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In a deep dive into the backroom fight over food stamps among House Republicans, Rogers reports that they have selected a set of “reforms” that will radically reduce the number of people eligible for the program. Close to 2 million people will be dropped from the food stamp program, Rogers estimates, if the House version becomes law. It doesn’t seem to matter to Republicans that these changes would also have to get through the Senate during the reconciliation process, which has rejected similar provisions in the past.

Distressingly, these are cuts that Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee seem willing to swallow. At a recent news conference, Rep. Collin Peterson (Minn.), ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, admitted that the committee is expected to approve its version by voice vote next week and send it on to the full House for final passage — though he acknowledged that the draft will probably “make Democrats angry.”

“Angry” is probably an understatement. I would argue that the cuts to food stamps will be a non-starter for numerous House Democrats — many of whose votes will be needed to pass the bill, probably ending hopes for a new farm bill before the election. Yet it’s also possible that this process has simply devolved into empty pre-election posturing.

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Evidence for this theory lies in the fact that the House leadership hasn’t even scheduled time to bring the farm bill up for a final vote. Politico’s Rogers speculated that House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (who bears a good part of the responsibility for setting the House schedule) never really believed the Senate would pass anything. Now he just wants the whole thing to go away.

With no guarantee of a floor vote on the House calendar, the prospect of an extension of the current bill (which expires in September) looms larger. But as Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition explains in the organization’s blog, there’s nothing simple about that either:

If we are headed to an extension of current law, here too there are at least three possible options. There could be a short term, 3-month extension, with the hope that Congress, during the “lame duck” session after the November elections could somehow find a way to finish the bill — even if the House version has never gone to the floor for debate (more on that option below).  There could also be a one-year extension, with both House and Senate starting the process all over again in the new two-year Congress starting in 2013.  Or there could be a one-year extension that could be superseded if a lame duck option materializes.

Substantively, there are also two options for an extension bill. One would be a clean extension, with no changes to current law during the time of the extension. The other, and perhaps more likely, would be an extension with a limited number of changes to current law, either to deal with several immediate problems that a simple extension would not address or to make a down payment on deficit reduction, or perhaps a combination of both.

And if the extension fails? Next stop, 1949.

We know the House GOP is happy to play chicken with the Senate as they just did with the federal transportation funding bill. In that fight, Senate Democrats showed a willingness to give up on many of their own priorities for the sake of getting a law passed that would keep federal funds flowing.

Further complicating matters, the House GOP has also made noise about demanding more cuts from commodity programs as well — a non-starter with Big Ag — though we’ll have to wait and see if those come to pass. Either way, Republicans have once again shown a willingness to take things to the brink. The question now is will they grab as many Democrats as they can and jump.

At the moment, the farm bill process is a Choose Your Own Adventure book full of tragic endings (and a slim chance of one or two reasonable ones). Hoefner couches the prospects for getting a new farm bill to the president’s desk about as hopefully as one can: “It’s a tall order, but not impossible.”

Indeed, I’m reminded of a comment Michael Pollan made during a visit to the Grist offices for a potluck lunch several years ago. At the time one of his ideas for improving food policy was to reform the House Agriculture Committee. As he put it, that committee is “where decent ag legislation goes to die.”

Of course, Pollan’s comment came before John Boehner and his Band of Merry Tea Partiers took control of the House in 2010. If the House Agriculture Committee of 2009 was where decent legislation went to die, then the current committee is where its corpse is trampled on, disemboweled, and paraded through the streets.