Senate sends farm bill to Obama

The Senate voted 68-32 Tuesday to pass a $956 billion farm bill that will reduce food stamp payments by $8 billion over the next 10 years.

It’s the first time Congress has approved a new farm bill since 2008, and follows three years of ups and downs for the legislation.

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President Obama supports the bill even though it reduces farm subsidy payments by less than what he had sought.

The White House said he would travel to Michigan State University on Friday to sign the bill. Michigan is the home state of Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. 

The bill would save $16.6 billion in spending over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

A majority of the spending in the bill is for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known widely as food stamps. The original House proposal would have cut $39 billion from the food stamps program, while the Senate-passed bill called for a $4 billion cut.

Conferees settled on cutting SNAP by $8 billion by requiring households to receive at least $20 per year in home heating assistance before they automatically qualify for food stamps, instead of the $1 threshold now in place in some states.

"As with any compromise, the Farm Bill isn’t perfect – but on the whole, it will make a positive difference not only for the rural economies that grow America’s food, but for our nation," Obama said in a statement.

Some Democrats opposed any cuts to food stamps, which is why Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) opposed final passage.

Republicans also didn’t unanimously support the bill. Some argued that the five-year farm bill was a missed opportunity for more reforms to prevent wealthy farmers from getting most of the subsidies.

“I’m going to vote against this rearview mirror legislation,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said. “I fully appreciate the need for a farm bill especially one that has been delayed for years, but while we need a farm bill, we do not need this farm bill.”

The biggest change to farm subsidies is the end of direct farm payments to individuals based on historic farm production. The direct subsidies were adopted in the 1990s in part because they do not distort trade by spurring new planting, but they have become controversial because non-farmers can get them.

The new bill melds previous proposals in the House and Senate bills and drops an approach the Senate sought in 2012 to move entirely to a revenue-based insurance program. That program was favored by corn and soy farmers but did not work for peanut and rice producers who demanded target-price-based support.

The final bill offers producers a choice between revenue- and price-triggered supports.

Negotiators weakened some payment limit provisions contained in both the House and Senate farm bills. The limits are now capped at $125,000 per individual, or $250,000 per couple, but caps within that total for specific kinds of payments have been removed.

An overall income cap for receiving crop insurance was also removed; critics say the final bill does not do enough to close a loophole that could allow large farming operations to win more subsidies by claiming additional people are actively engaged in farming.

Also missing is a requirement that lawmakers disclose the crop insurance help they themselves get from the government.

The full spectrum of farm lobbyists have pushed for passage of the final bill, with the notable exception of the meat industry. Meat processors are angry that the bill does not end meat labeling requirements and new regulations on purchasing.

Conservative groups such as Club for Growth and Heritage Action key-voted against the measure — H.R. 2642. They were joined by anti-hunger groups and some environmental groups, which also urged senators to vote no.

--This report was updated at 3:48 p.m.

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