Farm Bill passes in the Senate

The Senate passed a five-year farm bill on Monday night that sets federal food and farming policy for the next decade, but makes smaller cuts than a House version of the legislation that is set for consideration next week.


Three combines harvest winter wheat on a farm near Roggen, Colo. (AP)

Senators approved the 1,150-page bill by a vote of 66 to 27, with several senators absent due to flights delayed because of bad weather approaching Washington, D.C., Monday evening.

The legislation would cost roughly $955 billion over 10 years and includes significant cuts in direct subsidies to farmers -- some of whom receive aid even if they don't farm -- and a roughly $4 billion cut in the $80 billion federal food stamp program over the next decade.

"I don't think you can have an economy unless you make things and grow things. This bill is about growing things. That's what we need to do in this country," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee.

"We are very proud of the work we have done on a bipartisan basis and we are anxious to work with the House to get the final product to the president's desk," she added.

Senators passed a similar version of the farm legislation last year, but the House never held a vote on its version of the legislation, requiring both chambers to pass a one-year extension of existing policy.

Stabenow said she expects that Congress will ultimately pass a Farm Bill this year, because "There's a whole lot of people across our country who were very upset that the leadership in the House of Representatives walked away from rural America" and failed to pass a bill last year.

The House is expected to take up its version of the legislation next week. It makes similar changes to farming and conservation programs, but proposes a $20 billion cut in food stamps — formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — over the next decade, a far deeper cut than the Senate bill.

Federal food aid accounts for almost 80 percent of the overall Farm Bill, according to a Washington Post analysis, which has led some lawmakers to suggest that the bill should be identified primarily as a food aid bill and not a bill beneficial to farmers.

Differences in how much money to cut from the program are likely to dominate negotiations over a final version of the bill, which lawmakers must pass before current policy expires on Sept. 30.

"I expect some tough negotiations," Stabenow said Monday night.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) on Monday called for "a vigorous and open debate" over the legislation in his chamber and thanked lawmakers for the proposed cuts in farmer subsidies and the food stamp program. But he said he remains opposed to the House bill's current proposal for a new dairy insurance program that would reduce payments to some farmers depending on overall milk supply, because he would prefer to further limit the government's role in the process.

The speaker "wants a simpler approach with less government intervention than the convoluted current system and the proposal put forth in the committee-passed farm bill," his spokesman, Michael Steel, said in an e-mail.

One thing that the House and Senate versions of the legislation agree on is ending direct payments to farmers. The current system would be replaced with other programs that require farmers to grow actual crops. President Obama and lawmakers in both parties have called for the change.

But the House bill would allow direct payments to continue for two more years for cotton farmers as lawmakers sort out how to establish a new aid program for them.

This item was updated at 9:31 p.m.

Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.
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