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Posted at 10:00 PM ET, 06/18/2012

Senate reaches deal on farm bill


Andy Hall plants corn in a field, May 10, 2012, near Bondurant, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall - AP)
The Senate reached a deal late Monday that likely guarantees final passage of a new farm bill, likely to be one of the only significant spending bills passed by Congress before the November elections.

The new five-year measure would cost $969 billion over the next decade and includes $23.6 billion in proposed cuts, making it a slimmed-down version of legislation that historically served as one of the main opportunities for members of Congress to deliver pork-barrel spending to their constituents.

Senators are scheduled to begin voting Tuesday afternoon on 73 amendments to the bill, with votes expected to last most of Tuesday and Wednesday and final passage by week’s end, according to Senate aides. The 73-amendment “vote-o-rama” promises long days for senators on Tuesday and Wednesday and tops a similar 39-amendment process in April before final passage of a postal reform bill.

“This bill was developed through bipartisan collaboration, passed committee with broad bipartisan support, and we now have a bipartisan agreement to move forward with a bill that affects 16 million American jobs,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said in a statement, adding later that “We are now closer than ever to achieving real reform in America’s agriculture policy.”

Many of the amendments should pass by unanimous voice vote, aides said, but several will require contentious up or down votes.

Among the more notable amendments are GOP proposals to make deeper cuts to the federal food stamp program — formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — which has ballooned in recent years to more than $80 billion annually, making it the second-largest federal welfare program behind Medicaid and the largest chunk of spending in the farm bill.

But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and other urban-state lawmakers are expected to oppose cuts that go deeper than the $250 million in annual reductions over the next five years already included in the bill. Most of the reductions, backed by members of both parties, would come from reining in abuse and misuse of SNAP.

Gillibrand has argued that the cuts would unfairly target low-income families and cut monthly food aid payments by an average of $90.

But the food stamp program could face deeper cuts regardless in the GOP-controlled House version of the bill, which will be considered once the Senate gives final passage to its version.

Other amendments to the farm measure include proposals from Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to study the effects of mandatory spending cuts set to take effect in January as part of last year’s debt-ceiling negotiations. The McCain plan would order the Office of Management and Budget to study the effects of hundreds of millions of dollars in mandatory cuts to Defense Department spending. Murray’s proposal unveiled Monday would require OMB to study the effects of defense and nondefense budget cuts for fiscal year 2013.

Another amendment from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) would permit employers to give merit-based pay raises to workers without seeking permission from union leaders. The bill has strong support from Republicans, but Democrats consider the Rewarding Achievement and Incentivizing Successful Employees (RAISE) Act as an attempt to break labor unions that could also lead to cuts in worker insurance and pension contributions.

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