Senate Agriculture panel approves farm bill

The Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday approved a five-year farm bill in a 15-5 vote.

The markup of the $955 billion five-year farm bill featured fights over food stamps and price-based farm subsidies, but a bipartisan coalition beat back all major changes to the draft text, which is expected to reach the Senate floor next week.

Four Republicans voted against the bill: Sens. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsOvernight Finance: Lawmakers, Treasury look to close tax law loopholes | Trump says he backs gas tax hike | Markets rise despite higher inflation | Fannie Mae asks for .7B Senators working on fix to agriculture provision in GOP tax law Trump budget would slash crop insurance funds for farmers MORE (Kan.), Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLawmakers feel pressure on guns Bipartisan group of House lawmakers urge action on Export-Import Bank nominees Curbelo Dem rival lashes out over immigration failure MORE (Ky.), Mike JohannsMichael (Mike) Owen JohannsFarmers, tax incentives can ease the pain of a smaller farm bill Lobbying World To buy a Swiss company, ChemChina must pass through Washington MORE (Neb.) and John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneFlake to try to force vote on DACA stopgap plan Congress punts fight over Dreamers to March The 14 GOP senators who voted against Trump’s immigration framework MORE (S.D.). Liberal Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandAmerican women will decide who wins and loses in 2018 elections Dems ponder gender politics of 2020 nominee Calls mount from Dems to give platform to Trump accusers  MORE (D-N.Y.) also voted "no."

Lawmakers hope to enact the measure before the extended 2008 farm bill expires on Sept. 30.

The bill, written by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann Stabenow10 Senate Democrats are up for reelection in Trump country At least Alzheimer’s research is bringing Washington together Senate Dems block crackdown on sanctuary cities MORE (D-Mich.) and ranking member Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranOvernight Finance: Breaking down Trump's budget | White House finally releases infrastructure plan | Why it faces a tough road ahead | GOP, Dems feud over tax-cut aftermath | Markets rebound McConnell tees up budget deal McConnell urging Mississippi gov to appoint himself if Cochran resigns: report MORE (R-Miss.), would cut $23 billion from the deficit over 10 years.

But $4 billion of those cuts would come from the food stamp program, a move that has raised opposition from some Democratic senators.

The low level of defection in committee bodes well for the floor fight, Stabenow said after the panel's vote.

She predicted this year’s farm bill would enjoy similarly strong support to last year's, which passed the Senate on a 64-35 vote.

“I am absolutely confident we will see a strong vote,” she said.

Legislation never made it to the White House last year because House Republican leaders refused to bring their chamber's farm bill to the floor, partly for fear rank-and-file conservatives would balk at the bill for what they'd see as insufficient budget cuts. 

This year's House farm bill includes deeper cuts to food stamps, which could increase support from conservatives — though the $20.5 billion cut will spark opposition from liberals. 

During the Senate panel markup on Tuesday, Gillibrand presented but withdrew an amendment to replace the Senate's food stamp cuts with reductions to crop insurance programs. Her measure drew support from Sens. Mo Cowan (D-Mass.) and Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownLawmaker interest in NAFTA intensifies amid Trump moves Dem senator shares photo praising LeBron James after Laura Ingraham attacks Trump gets recommendation for steep curbs on imported steel, risking trade war MORE (D-Ohio).

“I believe that we should not be balancing the deficit on the backs of Americans who are just hungry,” Gillibrand said.

But other liberals on the committee, including Sen. Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinTrump should require federal contractors to follow the law Orrin Hatch, ‘a tough old bird,’ got a lot done in the Senate Democrats are all talk when it comes to DC statehood MORE (D-Iowa), indicated they would support the Stabenow cuts, which supporters say would decrease abuse of the food stamp system.

“We crack down on abuses in the system without attacking the basic structure of support that many families have needed to get themselves through this tough economy,” Stabenow said. Her changes would make it more difficult for states to sign up individuals for food stamps based on their use of heating aid.

Democrats were able to beat back attempts by GOP members to cut food stamps further.

Johanns offered an amendment to eliminate categorical eligibility for food stamps to save $11 billion. The provision — included in the House draft farm bill — was defeated.

“We are a moral country that does not want people to go hungry,” a passionate Gillibrand argued.

Thune offered an amendment to strengthen work requirements for able-bodied adults on food stamps, but his measure was defeated on voice vote.

The bill also shifts farm subsidies away from direct payments to farmers and toward expanded crop insurance. But unlike last year’s failed legislation, it would not completely do away with target-price supports favored by rice and peanut farmers.

Roberts, along with Johanns and Thune, led attempts to scale back some of those price supports from the bill during markup.

A key amendment by Thune to remove price supports for all but rice and peanuts was defeated on a voice vote. The northern plains Republicans argued that soybean, corn and wheat farmers do not want the support, and that the subsidies will be successfully challenged in the World Trade Organization as trade distorting. Such a finding could close off valuable export markets for key commodities.

“[A]s it stands at this point today, this is not a reform bill,” Roberts said. “Target prices under any name ... are government subsidies which are proved to be trade and market distorting.”

Price supports are paid out when market prices fall below a set target level. The new farm bill raises prices for commodities in a way that will tend to increase payouts to farmers.

Johanns offered an amendment to reduce target prices for rice and peanuts to 2008 levels, saving $1.5 billion. It was defeated on a voice vote.

Cochran defended his effort to reinstate price supports.

“We have tried to be fair to those affected by the bill as well as those who pay the bills,” said Cochran, who was backed by Sens. Saxby ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissLobbying World Former GOP senator: Let Dems engage on healthcare bill OPINION: Left-wing politics will be the demise of the Democratic Party MORE (R-Ga.) and John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanSenate Republicans call on Trump to preserve NAFTA Dems go on the attack during EPA chief's hearing Bipartisan group of senators ask Trump to fund broadband in infrastructure plan MORE (R-Ark.).

Cochran said after the markup that the day was a victory for Mississippi.

The farm subsidy cuts in the bill are less than what President Obama has called for, but Stabenow cautioned that rural America could not bear more budget cuts.

“Agriculture has been willing to do more than its part — from the supercommittee process to the farm bill we passed last year,” she said.

The Senate bill’s cuts, however, are dwarfed by those in the House, which would cut $39.7 billion over 10 years. The House will begin markup on its bill, to cut food stamps by $20.5 billion, on Wednesday.

The committee rejected attempts by Sen. John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenSenate Republicans call on Trump to preserve NAFTA GOP anxious with Trump on trade GOP lawmakers to Trump: Don't fire Mueller MORE (R-N.D.) to eliminate requirements to participate in conservation programs in order to receive subsidized crop insurance.

It also discussed, but did not vote on, a Johanns attempt to end country-of-origin labeling for meat that has caused a trade spat, and a provision by Sen. Max BaucusMax Sieben Baucus2020 Dems pose a big dilemma for Schumer Steady American leadership is key to success with China and Korea Orrin Hatch, ‘a tough old bird,’ got a lot done in the Senate MORE (D-Mont.) to ease agriculture trade to Cuba.

A provision by Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampSenate rejects Trump immigration plan Cramer to announce North Dakota Senate run on Friday Senate Democrats not sold on bipartisan immigration deal MORE (D-S.D.) to ease wetland rules to allow planting of alfalfa to aid bee populations was accepted.

—This report was originally published at 11:05 a.m. and last updated at 1:42 p.m.