Senate poised to struggle with farm bill

The Senate is poised to begin debate Tuesday on a 2013 farm bill that is likely to take up the rest of June. 

The bill would put the United States on track to spend $969 billion over 10 years on farm and nutrition programs, but supporters noted that this is a $23.6 billion cut compared to simply extending current programs.

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Still, the bill is likely to set off a fight in the Senate and will be even more controversial with conservative House Republicans. 

The bill eliminates direct farm subsidies but creates new crop insurance aid that is too generous for some deficit hawks and too stingy in the view of Southern farmers. 

It places new restrictions on food stamps, prompting some critics — including New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — to argue it will hurt the poor just as the economy is slowing. 

Yet the reductions fall short of House GOP-favored cuts to food stamps. 

The draft Senate bill enjoys enough bipartisan support to muster the 60 votes needed to overcome any Senate filibuster, say supporters who hope passage will spur the House to produce its own version.

They justify consuming a month of the Senate’s schedule at a time when the economy is laboring to improve by arguing that farm programs run out Sept. 30 and the sector employs 16 million people. 

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said Monday that a wide “universe” of amendments are planned just from Democrats. These could include measures to link crop insurance to environmental protection, limit payments for wealthy farmers and increase food stamp spending.

Stabenow said she is negotiating with colleagues in her party on the content of the Senate amendments. “This is the Senate. We expect that we could have a lot of different kind of amendments,” she said. 

One big fight among Democrats is likely to be over food stamps. Gillibrand announced she will fight to restore $4.5 billion in cuts to the food stamp program and will propose paying for the increased spending with cuts to crop insurance.

Stabenow on Monday said she was opposed to changing her version of the bill in order to maintain its bipartisan support, but some Democrats could be reluctant to take a vote that can be portrayed as cutting aid to the poor in favor of farm subsidies that often go to the wealthy.

“At this point in time we will have to see if the senator proceeds with a vote,” Stabenow said. “At this point in time we have struck a very delicate balance. And with any large piece of legislation that has been negotiated, it is really important to keep that balance so that we are fair to all sides.”

Stabenow is awaiting an amendment list from the GOP. The list could include an effort to provide additional subsidies to rice and peanut farmers.

Southern senators, led by Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.), voted against the farm bill in committee because they want additional protections for growers of Southern crops.

Stabenow said she is still in talks with Southern senators and farmers and held a conference call with rice farmers last week.

However, Stabenow also said, new studies call into question complaints from these farmers that they will be treated poorly under the new bill. A report last week from Ohio State University Professor Carl Zulauf showed rice farmers getting better protection under the new farm bill than growers of other crops.

The USA Rice Federation has questioned whether the Zulauf study truly reflects the committee’s farm bill and continued Monday to push for a system that would guarantee farmers get at least a set target price for their crops. 

Stabenow told reporters she is “very optimistic” the Senate will clear the bill and that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) remains committed to moving the bill this week even though the House Agriculture Committee has yet to act.

In the House, Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) has not set a date for a markup. Lucas is more supportive of the demands of rice and peanut farmers and has said he wants to see more cuts to food stamps.

Passage of farm legislation is seen as more difficult in the lower chamber, where conservative Tea Party Republicans critical of farm subsidies have more sway. 

House leaders have not signaled any intent to move a bill to the floor before the November election. Even a bill along the lines of what Lucas has talked about would likely face opposition from fiscal conservatives seeking to end farm subsidies and slash food stamp spending.

Stabenow, who faces reelection this year, has a lot riding on the farm bill. She said shepherding the measure would be a crowning achievement and emphasized that under its revised crop insurance program, fruit growers in her state could substantially benefit.

“This certainly ranks right up there for me along with helping to save the American automobile industry,” she said Monday.