Senators scramble to save Farm Bill

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and ranking member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) were scrambling Tuesday to save the $969 billion farm bill from failing on the Senate floor.

More than 100 amendments have been filed to the bill and more continue to pour in. Getting the farm bill to a final vote will require some agreement between Democrats and Republicans on a list of final amendments.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wants to eliminate "non-germane" amendments but his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is arguing that the must-pass legislation is a prime opportunity to enact a GOP priority wish list of anti-regulation legislation.

While the farm bill as drafted has the 60 votes it needs to pass, according to Stabenow and Roberts, the bill could fail if McConnell decides the GOP has not been treated fairly and urges the GOP conference to vote it down.

Roberts said that Farm Bill could fail.

“There is always that risk. The farmer puts his seed in the ground and hopes for a crop. That’s about where we are,” he said.

Roberts and Stabenow say they are still trying to finish up work on the farm bill this week, but aides say that deadline is very much in doubt.

The bill is vulnerable in part because it does not enjoy the full support of the Agriculture Committee, Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) said.  He and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) are leading an effort to set up an alternative system of farm subsidies for rice and peanut farmers in the bill.

He said on Tuesday that time is running out on talks with Stabenow and Roberts on the effort, and that without agreement, he will vote against the bill.

The challenge Roberts faces on getting the GOP to back the bill does not stop there.

High-profile “non-germane” amendments to the farm bill include one from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), which would require the administration to report by August on the full effects of the $500 billion in automatic defense cuts slated to take effect starting next year.

McCain said Tuesday that his amendment is still in play, as are others cutting spending on catfish inspection and popcorn subsidies.

Another amendment, from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), would cut off aid to Pakistan over the conviction of Dr. Shakil Afridi, who aided the United States in finding the late terrorist Osama bin Laden.

“I will use whatever leverage I have to get a vote on aid to Pakistan,” Paul said. “I have to agree to any [amendment list] that is agreed to.”

Paul is also seeking to block grant the entire food stamp program.

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), a former Agriculture secretary, said the farm bill could pass if Reid would just start allowing votes to begin.

“We wasted this morning,” he said. “If Reid starts the voting, we can work it out.”

He said that he is insisting on votes on an amendment stopping the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating farm dust and from conducting aerial surveillance of livestock.

McConnell in a Senate floor speech said the GOP just wants commonsense restrictions on regulations.

He listed five, including one to require the Department of Labor to consult with Congress before implementing child labor regulations for farms, one that stops the EPA from regulating non-navigable waters, one preventing the farm dust rule, one concerning Dodd-Frank financial regulations on futures and one on aerial surveillance.

“These five common sense Republican amendments I have outlined, along with several others, put an end to numerous job-killing regulations and each of them deserve a vote,” he said.

It remains unclear if this list of amendments is a signal McConnell is willing to limit GOP changes to a short-list of anti-regulation provisions.

A Democratic aide said that Reid is just trying to get a fair and reasonable list of amendments without allowing the GOP to bog down the bill.

The aide said that an amendment agreement could be reached later Tuesday but as of mid-day the fate of the 2013 farm bill was up in the air. If the bill is not enacted by Sept. 30, farm law reverts to 1949 policies, and farmers would be exposed to the market without any modern risk protection.

The Stabenow-Roberts bill puts the United States on track to spend $969 billion over 10 years and trims $23.6 billion from projected deficits. It ends direct cash payments to farmers, regardless of whether they actually farm, and replaces them with an expanded crop insurance program to cover “shallow” losses.

That program is still too generous for both conservatives and the White House, who worry that crop insurance premium support could balloon if commodity prices fall for an extended period from historic highs.

The draft bill also cuts food stamps by $4.3 billion. Liberals, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), are trying to restore the cuts while conservatives led by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) want billions more saved through limitations and reforms. The food stamp fight is likely to go forward even if other amendment debates are set aside.