Christopher Doering, Gannett Washington Bureau
Food stamps would be cut under the Senate bill, but the House wants to cut deeper.
WASHINGTON — Congress moved a step closer Monday toward completing a sweeping five-year, $500 billion farm law, with the Senate approving legislation that would cut farm subsidies while expanding crop insurance.
The Senate voted 66-27 in favor of the package, which includes food stamps, rural economic development programs and international food aid. The attention now shifts to the House, where the bill could reach the floor for debate as soon as next week.
The level of food stamp funding is expected to be a key sticking point during the next few months.
"This is a call for action. The Senate has gotten its act together on this bill ... and now it is time for Speaker Boehner to call the House bill up," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. "It is time to get this bill done."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, confirmed Monday the chamber would begin discussing the farm bill later this month and vowed a "vigorous and open debate."
"If you have ideas on how to make the bill better, bring them forward," Boehner told his colleagues. "Let's have the debate, and let's vote on them."
Last year, the Senate passed a farm bill by a wide margin in June followed by approval of legislation in the House Agriculture Committee a month later. But GOP leaders in the House were reluctant to call for a vote on either bill because they did not think they had the 218 votes necessary to pass either plan ahead of the November election. As a result, Congress failed to pass a bill and instead voted to extend the 2008 farm law until Sept. 30.
Despite the promise of floor time in the House, the agriculture community is still skittish after the failure by lawmakers to pass a bill in 2012. "We made it this far last year," said Lisa Richardson, executive director with the South Dakota Corn Growers Association. "We're only in the second inning and we need to finish the game this time."
The Senate bill passed Monday would reduce overall spending by about $24 billion over 10 years, compared to about $38 billion during the same period in a House measure. Much of the savings would come from the consolidation of conservation programs, reductions to the food stamp program and cuts to farm subsidies of $17 billion.
Senators looking for further cuts in subsidy payments during the recent farm bill debate have so far been largely unsuccessful. One measure included in the bill that has drawn support is the requirement that farmers with incomes above $750,000 pay more for taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance. Currently, the government pays 62% of every $1 in crop insurance premiums. The legislation cuts that total to 47% for about 20,000 of America's wealthiest farmers.
The bill would invest savings in new revenue insurance programs backed by Midwest corn and soybean farmers that protect them against "shallow losses" caused by low prices or poor yields. Crop insurance would kick in to cover larger losses. In a bid to appease Southern lawmakers concerned their farmers would be hurt by the end of direct payments, the Senate farm bill also would set higher support prices for rice and peanut farmers, meaning growers would see subsidy payments kick in sooner.
While the House and Senate farm bill measures being crafted this year largely mirror each other in terms of their changes to farm programs, a significant divide exists in the scope of proposed cuts to the country's food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The Senate is proposing reductions of $4 billion and the House about $20 billion, but some Republicans have been pushing for even deeper cuts. Democrats complain the rollback would hurt the 48 million Americans who depend on the program. Food aid accounts for almost 80% of spending in the farm bill and has given lawmakers from non-rural areas a significant stake in the final outcome of the bill.
While most groups backed the Senate bill, some said lawmakers should have done more to overhaul farm policy.
Scott Faber, Environmental Working Group's vice president for government affairs, said the Senate missed a chance to help the hungry and the environment when it chose to shift most of the savings from subsidy cuts into crop insurance and price guarantees that benefit the largest and most successful farmers.
"Consumers and family farmers deserve a better and more transparent farm bill than the one considered by the full Senate today," Faber said.