Senate passes farm bill

WASHINGTON -- The Senate passed a new farm bill on June 21, putting pressure on the House to pass a bill before the 2008 farm bill expires on Sept. 30.

WASHINGTON -- The Senate passed a new farm bill on June 21, putting pressure on the House to pass a bill before the 2008 farm bill expires on Sept. 30.

The new bill, which passed on a vote of 64-35, repeals the direct payments that crop farmers have been getting whether prices are high or low and several other commodity programs, but establishes a new program to pay farmers for some losses not covered by crop insurance. It does not include target prices or countercyclical payments, but Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., are working with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., to get a target price program included in the final bill. Conrad had prepared an amendment to include target prices, but dropped that proposal, saying that he has another idea and has found money in the budget to pay for it, but does not want to reveal the source of funding until the bill is in conference with the House because he is afraid other legislators would want to use the offset for other purposes.

The bill also creates a new dairy program and a wide range of benefits for fruit and vegetable producers. It also establishes a new private foundation for agricultural research that should be of benefit to land-grant universities. It also continues the sugar program but changes the U.S. Department of Agriculture's sugar tariff rate quota decision date from April 1 to Feb. 1.

Crop insurance debate

The bill maintains the current crop insurance but the Senate made a couple of changes in that program that farm groups lobbied against. The Senate voted to approve an amendment offered by Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to raise premiums for farmers with an adjusted gross income of more than $750,000, and one sponsored by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., to require that farmers participating in the crop insurance program adhere to federal conservation standards on highly erodible land and wetland conservation.


The debate over the Durbin-Coburn amendment was a rare moment of bitterness on the Senate floor during the debate.

Durbin said that the amendment would affect only 1,500 farmers and without it the crop insurance program would be the only section of the bill not to take a cut. Coburn noted it would save $1 billion.

But Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said the adoption of the amendment "will impact every single producer in the program." Predicting that big farmers would leave the program, he said, "The rest will pay higher premiums when they are out the program."

Roberts also said that the provision would lead to return of low crop-insurance participation and ad hoc disaster programs.

The vote for Durbin-Coburn amendment was 66-33 -- so large an approval that it signaled a change in attitude in Congress and possibly also that some senators had voted for it in order to be able to negotiate with Roberts, a strong crop insurance supporter, over other farm bill issues when the bill goes to conference.

The Senate rejected by a vote of 44-55 an amendment proposed by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., that said USDA must certify that the adjusted gross income provision will not increase its administrative costs by $1. Its passage would have nullified the Durbin-Coburn amendment.

Pressure is on

After the Senate passed the farm bill today in an atmosphere of extraordinary bipartisan cooperation, Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Roberts and others began putting pressure on the House Agriculture Committee and the full House to pass a bill.


At a news conference after the Senate passed the bill, Stabenow said she was now turning to her House colleagues. "I call on the leadership in the House to work with them as the Senate leadership worked with us."

Roberts, a former House Agriculture Committee chairman, also said that he would be calling House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., but did not elaborate on what he would say to them. But Roberts was one of the most outspoken senators in praising the speed and bipartisanship with which the bill sailed through the Senate. Roberts noted that the bill went through committee in 4½ hours and through the Senate in 2½ days. Roberts said the Senate had functioned on the farm bill in a regular that he had not seen in the last three years and was a signal that "in the middle of an election year we can get something done."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Stabenow and Roberts had risen to the occasion of leadership. After the bill passed, Reid noted, "It is 2 o'clock in the afternoon, not 2 o'clock in the morning." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that this had been "one of the finest moments in the Senate in recent times in terms of passing a bill."

Stabenow said she would not set "artificial dates" for the completion of the bill, but added that when the current farm bill expires on Sept. 30 there are "looming disastrous results after that."

"We'll work with whatever is handed us," Stabenow said. But she said she believes the conference could go quickly because she, Roberts, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., worked together so well on the proposal that they sent to the supercommittee on deficit reduction in December.

Baucus said, "I expect the teamwork to continue when the House takes up the bill. In respect to Montana, this is a jobs bill." Baucus also said that the bill, which would save $23.6 billion over 10 years compared with the continuation of current programs, "is a good precedent for striating to reduce the deficit."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a former Agriculture committee chairman and ranking member, noted that he had been in the same position as both Stabenow and Roberts and said he had never seen the farm bill move so quickly and also called on the House to act.

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