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.

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Four Republicans voted against the bill: Sens. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsGOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE Senate passes mammoth farm bill Moderates need to hold firm against radical right on Farm Bill MORE (Kan.), Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate GOP breaks record on confirming Trump picks for key court Senate Democrats block resolution supporting ICE The Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s walk-back fails to stem outrage on Putin meeting MORE (Ky.), Mike JohannsMichael (Mike) Owen JohannsMeet the Democratic sleeper candidate gunning for Senate in Nebraska Farmers, tax incentives can ease the pain of a smaller farm bill Lobbying World MORE (Neb.) and John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenators share their fascination with sharks at hearing Helsinki summit becomes new flashpoint for GOP anger Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash MORE (S.D.). Liberal Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandElection Countdown: Senate, House Dems build cash advantage | 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser | Trump has M in war chest | Republican blasts parents for donating to rival | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders to campaign in Kansas Senate Democrats block resolution supporting ICE House backs resolution expressing support for ICE 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 StabenowLobbying world The Hill's Morning Report — Trump, Putin meet under cloud of Mueller’s Russia indictments Dem senator: Kavanaugh sides with 'wealthiest special interests' MORE (D-Mich.) and ranking member Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranTodd Young in talks about chairing Senate GOP campaign arm US farming cannot afford to continue to fall behind Mississippi Democrat drops Senate bid 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 BrownTrump pick to face grilling over family separations On The Money: Commerce to review uranium imports | Lawmakers urge Trump not to impose auto tariffs | White House wants steeper cuts to EPA funding | Google hit with massive B fine Congress won’t stop Trump’s trade assault 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 HarkinDem Senator open to bid from the left in 2020 Senate GOP rejects Trump’s call to go big on gun legislation Trump should require federal contractors to follow the law 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 BoozmanGOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE Lobbying world 13 GOP senators ask administration to pause separation of immigrant families 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 HoevenGOP senators visited Moscow on July 4, warned Russia against meddling in 2018 election: report GOP lawmakers plan official visit to Russia later this week GOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border 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 BaucusJudge boots Green Party from Montana ballot in boost to Tester Clients’ Cohen ties become PR liability Green Party puts Dem seat at risk in Montana MORE (D-Mont.) to ease agriculture trade to Cuba.

A provision by Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampElection Countdown: Senate, House Dems build cash advantage | 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser | Trump has M in war chest | Republican blasts parents for donating to rival | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders to campaign in Kansas Senate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Bipartisan group introduces retirement savings legislation in Senate 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.