Washington • Briefly putting election-year politics aside, the Senate on Thursday moved toward strong approval of legislation assuring that farmers hit by bad times will be protected and that millions of others hurt by the bad economy won't go hungry.
The Senate is expected to show bipartisan support for the $500 billion bill that sets farm safety net and conservation policies and funds the food stamp program over the next five years. The vote will come after lawmakers finish the final eight of more than 70 amendments the Senate is considering as part of the 1,000-page bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky opened Thursday's session by praising the Senate's recent successes in getting bills passed. McConnell said they were "getting back to operating the way the Senate traditionally has."
The bill goes next to the House, where there's less enthusiasm for it among conservative Republicans. The House Agriculture Committee has delayed a vote on the farm bill until July 11, and it's uncertain when the full House will vote. The 2008 farm bill expires at the end of September.
One issue the Senate left unresolved that the House will have to consider is a division between northern and southern farmers over safety nets.
The Senate bill makes major changes in past practices, eliminating direct payments to farmers regardless of whether they plant a crop and replacing the payments with greater emphasis on crop insurance and a new revenue protection plan that compensates farmers for minor losses until crop insurance kicks in.
Northern and Midwestern corn and soybean farmers support the change, but southern rice and peanut farmers, who have relied more heavily on direct payments and a target price subsidy that would also be eliminated, are looking to the House to keep at least some parts of the old system.
Senate supporters say the changes to the subsidy programs will save $15 billion over the next 10 years. The entire bill, with savings to conservation programs and food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, would save the treasury $23 billion over that period.
The Senate bill also limits subsidy payments to those with adjusted gross income of less than $750,000, half the current ceiling, and caps payments at $50,000 for an individual or $100,000 for a couple. An amendment approved Wednesday would also reduce by 15 percentage points the taxpayer share of crop insurance premiums for those with incomes of more than $750,000. The government now pays an average 62 percent of crop insurance premiums.
The bill also ends payments to "farm managers," sometimes wealthy people who may have an interest in a farm but don't live on the property or actively engage in farming.
Food stamps continue to command the great majority of farm bill dollars. Spurred by the bad economy, there are now 46 million people getting food stamps, at a cost of about $80 billion a year. That's 80 percent of the entire farm bill budget.
The farm bill does make an effort to end abuse or misuse of SNAP benefits. Lottery winners and college students being supported by their non-low-income families no longer qualify. The bill cracks down on benefit trafficking, prevents liquor and tobacco stores from accepting food stamps and closes a loophole in which some states give as little as $1 a year in heating assistance to people, even when they don't have heating bills, to increase their food stamp benefits. That saves about $4 billion over 10 years, a tiny part of the $770 billion the program is expected to spend, and senators rejected amendments that would have made deeper cuts in the program.
The measure also differs from past farm bills in paying more attention to what are called specialty crops, mainly fruits and vegetables. It expands block grants to states to support research and promotion of specialty crops, assists organic farmers and expands support for farmers' markets and programs that help get healthy foods to low-income areas.
Still, there are numerous groups that say the bill doesn't go far enough in casting off old farm bill habits. The conservative Club for Growth said it still asserts too much government control in the private sector. The public interest advocacy group U.S. PIRG said the bill "will continue the current practice of disproportionately subsidizing the largest agribusinesses, who are already profitable and don't need taxpayer handouts."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., long a watchdog for special interest projects included in highway and farm bills, noted that the bill doesn't change the program that protects sugar growers from foreign competition and creates a new $3 billion program for cotton growers. He said there is also money in the bill to improve the U.S. sheep industry, study the health benefits of peas and lentils and plant trees in urban parks.
Among the final amendments taken up Thursday was one by Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., that would have barred the Environmental Protection Agency from conducting any aerial surveillance over agriculture operations. It fell four votes short of the 60 needed for passage. It was recently falsely reported that the EPA was using drones to spy on cattle ranchers in Nebraska.