June 07--WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted 90-8 today on a motion to proceed on the farm bill, and the White House issued a strong statement of support in favor of the bill, although the administration wants further cuts to crop insurance and commodity program spending.
The vote was an enormous victory for Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., especially since farm-minded southern senators voted for it. It is unclear whether any deal has been reached to satisfy rice and peanut growers, who have said the commodity title in the bill will not be a proper safety net for them.
The White House said it expects to work with Congress on a few concerns it has.
"The administration greatly appreciates the Senate's bipartisan efforts to enact a farm bill," said a statement of administration policy issued by the Office of Management and Budget. "With authorization for farm- and food-related programs set to expire this year, it is critical that the Congress pass legislation that provides certainty for rural America and includes needed reforms and savings."
The senators who voted against the motion to proceed on the legislation are all Republicans known as fiscal conservatives: Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, John Cornyn of Texas, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Dean Heller of Nevada, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Mike Lee of Utah.
Two Republican senators did not vote: Dean Vitter of Louisiana and Mark Kirk of Illinois.
The Senate did not proceed immediately on the bill, but debate is expected over the coming week. Roberts has said he would like the bill finished by June 14, but lobbyists said that schedule is optimistic.
Stabenow and Roberts issued a news release urging the Senate to act quickly.
"The 2008 farm bill is set to expire at the end of September -- we must pass this common sense bill immediately to give farmers the certainty they need to continue growing the economy," Stabenow said. "Sixteen million American jobs rely on agriculture. The time for reform is now."
"We've cut mandatory spending by $23.6 billion," Roberts said. "We've reformed, eliminated and streamlined USDA programs to the tune of more than 100 programs and authorizations eliminated. We've done it on a voluntary basis and in a bipartisan fashion. Simply put, this bill is common sense reform and needs to be approved now to provide certainty for our farmers and ranchers to make planning decisions and to help our economic recovery."
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., went to the Senate floor to urge passage of the bill in a timely fashion. Hoeven noted that the bill would cost $960 billion over 10 years, of which $800 billion would be food stamps or $480 billion over five years, of which $400 billion would be for food stamps. He noted those figures show that the cost of the farm program is only $100 billion over five years or about $20 billion per year. Hoeven called the bill, "an effective market-based approach" and "something to support every single American."
The White House statement said the bill "makes meaningful progress toward the administration's goals."
"Notable reforms include eliminating the direct payment system; tightening payment and eligibility requirements; strengthening access to healthy, affordable food; protecting emergency food aid programs and authorities; and increasing flexibility in the delivery of international food aid," the White House statement said.
The statement added that "the administration supports the Senate's efforts to consolidate and streamline conservation assistance, which will reduce administrative burdens on farmers and ranchers and improve environmental outcomes. The bill's funding for bioenergy programs will enhance our energy security while supporting innovation and growth in rural economies."
But the statement also said that the administration "looks forward to working with the Congress to achieve crop insurance and commodity program savings that are not contained in S. 3240, while at the same time strengthening the farm safety net in times of need and supporting the next generation of farmers."
The White House noted that the administration "strongly supports the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a cornerstone of our nation's food assistance safety net, which is why it was not subject to cuts in the president's budget."
But the statement did not list any specific objections to the $4 billion in SNAP cuts that are in the bill. It also said that the administration will also work with Congress "to structure reporting requirements" and create the agricultural research foundation in the bill that would raise private sector money.
It's unclear how many amendments there may be on the bill, but some -- both germane and otherwise -- have surfaced. Stabenow said she and Roberts are willing to consider any amendments, as they did in committee.
"If somebody has a problem with the bill, come to us," Stabenow said, adding that members of the committee had brought forward more than 100 amendments and that 44 had been added.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said in a floor speech June 6 that he would support an amendment to make "minor" changes to the sugar program and that he and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., would offer an amendment making changes to crop insurance.
A long list of farm and rural development groups sent senators a letter today urging support for an amendment to be offered by Sen. Sherrod Brown, R-Ohio, to put mandatory funding for rural development programs into the bill. A spokesman for the coalition said it does not include an offset, but urges the Senate to use savings in the bill beyond $23 billion to pay for it.
For farmers, the most controversial amendments will be those dealing with crop insurance.
The Senate bill continues the current crop insurance program and expands it for fruits and vegetables. Crop insurance is expected to cost $9 billion per year, making it the most expensive of farm programs and bringing calls for restrictions on the income levels of people who get subsidized premiums or on the amount of subsidy farmers can get and the amount of service fees and profits companies and agents can get.
Stabenow and Roberts said they would defend crop insurance against cuts.
"Crop insurance is the core," Stabenow said, noting that farmers all over the country had said it is the most important farm program
Roberts said he expects Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to offer a defense-related amendment and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to offer an amendment related to union clearance of pay raises.
Stabenow said she would try to accommodate all amendments, but if she sees that senators are trying to stop the process, she will seek help from the Senate leadership to take procedural actions to move the bill forward.
At the news conference, Stabenow made the case she has made countless times to farm groups: that the bill will save $23.6 billion over 10 years compared with a continuation of the current bill, that it ends the direct payments program that critics detest and makes other reforms, that it creates a new market-oriented commodity program and that passage of a new farm bill this year is vital for the economy because farmers need stability and 16 million American jobs depend on agriculture.
"Nobody has more risk" than farmers and ranchers, Stabenow said. "It's time to act. We've done our job in bringing this bill out," a reference to her committee's bipartisan passage of the bill in April.
Roberts, a former House Agriculture Committee chairman, noted that this is his seventh farm bill and that this bill really is "dramatic" in its changes.
When other senators ask him why the current bill shouldn't just be extended, Roberts said he tells them that the 2008 bill now in effect is based on 25-year old concepts and acreage bases.
Roberts called the new bill "a good bill, a reform bill, a jobs bill," and said it will help a new generation of farmers, reduce problems the United States has at the World Trade Organization and provide the basis for feeding a world population expected to increase to 9 billion people.
But while Roberts was praising the new revenue-based commodity program, southern rice and peanut growers were encouraging senators to organize against it.
At the news conference, Stabenow and Roberts were flanked by young farmers from Michigan and Virginia who said they need the new bill this year.
Ben LaCross, a cherry grower from Michigan, said that if the new bill had been in place this year he could have gotten insurance on his cherry crop, most of which was lost due to an early spring and then frost. LaCross said his usual cherry is 4 million pounds, but this year will be only 40,000 pounds.
Sarah Leonard, a Virginia dairy farmer, also said she needs the new dairy program in the bill. "I would like to sell milk and not sell my land to developers," she said.
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