Senate Approves Five-Year Farm Bill
06/21/2012| 04:02pm US/Eastern
--Senate passes farm bill by 64-35 vote.
--Bill cuts $4.5 billion in food stamp spending
--House panel to vote on separate farm bill in July
(Updates to add comments from senators throughout.)
By Bill Tomson
WASHINGTON--The Senate Thursday approved a new five-year farm bill to overhaul the way the government subsidizes agricultural production in the U.S., cutting billions of dollars in spending and shifting aid to crop-insurance programs.
The bill, which passed with a 64-35 vote, contains about $23.6 billion in spending cuts over a 10-year period on crop subsidies and other government programs, paving the way for the House of Representatives to take up its own version of the legislation.
The five-year Senate bill, if signed into law, would tear down a 20-year-old direct-payment-subsidy program that pays roughly $5 billion a year to farmland owners even if they aren't planting crops, and expands government crop insurance.
Crop subsidies are projected to be cut by about $19.5 billion over 10 years under the legislation, but government payments to help farmers pay for insurance premiums and subsidize crop-insurance companies would increase by about $3.2 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
About $4.5 billion in food-stamp cuts in the Senate bill angered some Democrats, but fiscal conservatives complained the cuts didn't go deep enough. The farm bill contains about $80 billion of spending per year for food stamps and other nutrition programs for the needy. Most of the proposed cut comes from eliminating a loophole in which households that receive state assistance to cover heating bills become eligible to receive additional food-stamp aid.
"I am deeply disappointed by the $4.5 billion in cuts to food assistance in this bill," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.).
Senators approved an amendment to the bill Tuesday that would put a $75,000 cap on payments farmers can receive from the Loan Deficiency Payment Program, an income-support program. Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa) said the measure would prevent wealthy farmers from collecting subsidies tied to marketing loans given by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Senate passage frees up the House of Representatives to complete its own version of the bill, which is expected to be more friendly to southern peanut and rice farmers, who have complained the Senate bill takes away too much of the government support they have come to rely upon.
Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) and Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) praised the fact that the farm bill drew support from both Democrats and Republicans.
Mr. Roberts said the passage of the bill should show Americans that "in the middle of a tough election year, we could actually get something done."
Bipartisan passage of the farm bill, said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), represents one of the best moments in recent Senate history.
"This is a very fine day," Mr. McConnell said.
But the bill did not have the support of key southern lawmakers who have been fighting on behalf of rice and peanut farmers. Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.), John Boozman (R., Ark.) and Mark Pryor (D., Ark) voted against the farm bill.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, who is scheduled to present his version of the next farm bill to panel members for a vote July 11, said in a recent interview the legislation must be fair to all farming regions in the U.S.
"The one-size-fits-all approach [in the Senate bill]...just won't work," Mr. Lucas said.
Mr. Lucas also said the House farm bill likely will contain as much as $33 billion in spending cuts, $10 billion more than in the Senate version, although he didn't give details.
"Although there will be differences between the Senate approach and our own, I hope my colleagues are encouraged by this success when we meet on the 11th to consider our own legislation," he said in a statement released Thursday.
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