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 RobertsEvangelical leader: Not worth risking ties with Saudi Arabia over missing journalist GOP loads up lame-duck agenda as House control teeters Congress allows farm bill to lapse before reauthorization deadline MORE (Kan.), Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenators introduce Trump-backed criminal justice bill On The Money: Senior GOP senator warns Trump against shutdown | Treasury sanctions 17 Saudis over Khashoggi killing | HQ2 deal brings new scrutiny on Amazon | Senate confirms Bowman to Fed board Senior GOP senator warns Trump against partial shutdown 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 ThuneOn The Money: Senior GOP senator warns Trump against shutdown | Treasury sanctions 17 Saudis over Khashoggi killing | HQ2 deal brings new scrutiny on Amazon | Senate confirms Bowman to Fed board Senior GOP senator warns Trump against partial shutdown The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — House, Senate leaders named as Pelosi lobbies for support to be Speaker MORE (S.D.). Liberal Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandHillicon Valley: Facebook reeling after NYT report | Dems want DOJ probe | HQ2 brings new scrutiny on Amazon | Judge upholds Russian troll farm indictments | Cyber moonshot panel unveils recommendations On The Money: Senior GOP senator warns Trump against shutdown | Treasury sanctions 17 Saudis over Khashoggi killing | HQ2 deal brings new scrutiny on Amazon | Senate confirms Bowman to Fed board Gillibrand criticizes financial incentives for Amazon 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 StabenowSchumer reelected as Senate Democratic Leader Senate GOP readies for leadership reshuffle Battle looms over funding for Trump's border wall MORE (D-Mich.) and ranking member Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranHyde-Smith dismisses comments about making voting harder for liberal students as a joke Election Countdown: Florida Senate race heads to hand recount | Dem flips Maine House seat | New 2020 trend - the 'friend-raiser' | Ad war intensifies in Mississippi runoff | Blue wave batters California GOP Dem pollster says 'counter-revolution' taking place in Georgia, Mississippi 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 BrownBudowsky: Sherrod Brown should run in 2020 Sherrod Brown: If Stacey Abrams doesn't win, Republicans 'stole it' Nearly six in ten want someone other than Trump elected president in 2020: poll 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 HarkinOn Nicaragua, the silence of the left is deafening Dem Senator open to bid from the left in 2020 Senate GOP rejects Trump’s call to go big on gun legislation 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 ChamblissCIA's ‘surveillance state’ is operating against us all Juan Williams: GOP plays the bigotry card in midterms A hard look at America after 9/11 MORE (R-Ga.) and John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanOvernight Defense: Duncan Hunter refusing to step down from committees | Trump awards Medal of Honor to widow of airman | Pentagon names pick for Mideast commander Trump awards posthumous Medal of Honor to family of fallen Air Force sergeant GOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE 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 nerves on edge after Sinema takes lead over McSally Trump poised to sign bipartisan water infrastructure bill Overnight Energy: Trump Cabinet officials head west | Zinke says California fires are not 'a debate about climate change' | Perry tours North Dakota coal mine | EPA chief meets industry leaders in Iowa to discuss ethanol mandate 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 BaucusOvernight Defense: McCain honored in Capitol ceremony | Mattis extends border deployment | Trump to embark on four-country trip after midterms Congress gives McCain the highest honor Judge boots Green Party from Montana ballot in boost to Tester MORE (D-Mont.) to ease agriculture trade to Cuba.

A provision by Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampNorth Dakota New Members 2019 2020 politics make an immigration deal unlikely in lame-duck Mellman: The triumph of partisanship 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.