Senators to vote today on taking up the farm bill

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, June 8, 2012

The Senate today is expected to vote on whether or not to proceed with floor debate on the farm bill.

Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) talked up the bill on the floor yesterday, saying it would help improve water and soil quality and protect farmers from risks related to weather and volatile prices.

Stabenow and Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee ranking member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) are expressing confidence that they have the 60 votes needed to begin debate and said they would welcome amendments on the bill.

At a press conference, though, Stabenow warned that she would turn to procedural actions if debate on the bill stretches too long. Committee leaders are pushing for rapid passage of the five-year legislation so that a new farm bill is in place when the old one expires Sept. 30.

The commodity title is expected to generate the most debate. Southern senators have said they would vote against the bill if it isn’t changed to address their concerns about the lack of a safety net for peanuts and rice.

There will likely be a raft of amendments on the crop insurance program, which provides subsidies to farmers to help pay premiums on insurance. The largest expansion of funding in the bill comes in crop insurance.

One amendment is expected to propose linking conservation requirements to crop insurance. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) are offering another amendment that would cap subsidy payments to crop insurance.

Roberts said he and Stabenow were still negotiating with Senate leaders on how to handle amendments but encouraged senators to “come on down” and offer changes.

He said he expects nongermane amendments — proposals unrelated to agriculture, conservation or food. Already, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is planning to attach to the bill an amendment that would force the Department of Defense to provide details on budget sequestration cuts.

“I would prefer if all nongermane amendments to agriculture be considered in a separate venue, but then again, I know that’s not possible,” Roberts said. “So we are opening the door. … Come on down. Talk to us. We will try to accommodate anybody and everybody on any section of the bill.”

Roberts added that he and Stabenow hope to get the bill done in a week.

Altogether, the bill would cost $969 billion over the next decade, according to the latest Congressional Budget Office score. It cuts $23.6 billion from current funding levels by eliminating direct farmer subsidies, cutting the food stamps program and consolidating conservation programs.

“Throughout this farm bill,” Stabenow said, “we took the same approach as a family sitting around the table would when trying to make cuts to their own budget.”

Stabenow yesterday touted the conservation title of the bill as exemplary of agriculture leaders’ efforts to streamline programs.

The bill would cut more than $6 billion from conservation by dropping the number of programs from 23 down to 13. The bill’s major programs, including the Conservation Reserve Program, would be kept, while other programs would be combined to provide for conservation easements and create a new focus on regional efforts in places like the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay.

While some groups have decried the reduction in funding for conservation, nearly 650 conservation organizations have come out in support of the bill.