By Erik Wasson - 05/25/13 12:00 PM EDT
Senators critical of the level of spending in the giant $955 billion farm bill are fighting for floor votes after the Memorial Day recess on deeper cuts to its subsidies payments.
The Senate barely passed, by a 59 to 33 vote, a reduction in crop insurance subsidies for those making over $750,000 per year.
Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Jean Shaheen (D-N.H.) are leading the effort to put further limits on the bill’s expanded crop insurance provisions.
As of Friday, they had not yet been able to secure an agreement that their amendments would be considered. Senate leaders want a so-called time agreement in order to wrap up the farm bill before the Senate takes up an immigration overhaul.
Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) are hoping to limit amendments to get the farm bill passed by the full Senate the week of June 3.
Both voted against the crop insurance limitation that passed on Thursday.
The committee draft bill cuts $23 billion in spending over ten years, with $4 billion coming from food stamps. Stabenow argues that further cuts would weaken the farm safety net unfairly.
An aide said that Stabenow has not formally said how she would vote on the other crop insurance limitations, but proponents of the limits predict she will vote against them.
Toomey and Shaheen have an amendment that would limit crop insurance premium subsidies to $50,000 per crop per year. They estimate the provision would save $3.6 billion.
Josh Sewell of Taxpayers for Common Sense said a vote on Shaheen-Toomey would be a “nail-biter.”
“If the bill managers let the Senate actually have a vote, it seems some of these do have a chance,” he said. “This all depends on whether there are any votes. Sens. Stabenow and Cochran don’t seem inclined to give the amendments challenging the crop insurance status quo their day on the floor.”
Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group said the real battle is over the time agreement because payment limitations could very well pass the full Senate as they have in the past.
“At bottom, crop insurance is the most inequitable of the farm subsidies,” he argued.
Flake has several crop insurance amendments, including one that could save $7.7 billion.
That amendment would end a provision known as the “harvest price option.” This provision allows farmers to get reimbursed based on what a damaged crop would have sold for at harvest time rather than what farmers predicted it would sell for at planting time. The option allows farmers to choose whichever price gets them the bigger insurance payout.
Flake and McCaskill have another amendment that would allow the government to reduce the deficit by renegotiating reinsurance agreements with crop insurance companies. The last time the government did this, it saved $6 billion, but the new farm bill has a provision prohibiting any savings being used to reduce the deficit.
Finally, Flake has an amendment that would allow the Agriculture Department to fully disclose the identity of those receiving crop insurance premiums, something that is currently not made public even though recipients of other subsidies are revealed.
If the crop insurance amendments are adopted, they would likely complicate an eventual effort to pass a farm bill through the House. The House draft farm bill does not contain payment limits based on income and Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) is opposed.
The differences are minor compared to differences between the House and Senate on food stamps, however. Lucas said Thursday that the $16 billion difference between cuts in the House bill and those in the Senate version are the chief problem facing the farm bill.
Lucas said that he is encouraged that so far the core Stabenow-Cochran draft text has survived votes on the Senate floor. The Senate defeated an attempt to end the U.S. sugar program of nonrecourse loans and import quotas as well as a liberal attempt to strip out the bill’s $4 billion in food stamp cuts.
“I would like to think that watching the Senate committee-passed text essentially remain whole…I’d like to think that bodes well for my efforts to keep the House draft on the floor in June whole,” Lucas said. “You also have to remember you have a very engaged, active chairwoman in the form of Sen. Stabenow.”
Lucas said the House farm bill is coming to the floor in mid-June.