The Senate passed a new farm bill Thursday with a massive bipartisan vote of 86 to 11, signaling that the Senate Agriculture Committee will be in a strong position in negotiations with the House Agriculture Committee in conference.
“I thought it was a strong vote,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told reporters immediately after the Senate adjourned until after the Independence Day break.
Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., noted that the manager’s package incorporated 171 bipartisan bills and amendments.
“We worked hard to build a coalition,” Stabenow said, adding she hopes the House will look at how “broad” the support was.
There are no major changes to the farm programs in the bill. The basis of the commodity programs changes little in the Senate and House versions of the bill. Neither bill raises reference prices that are the basis for the Price Loss Coverage (PLC) and Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) program.
More than 77% of base acres are now enrolled in ARC — and the percentage is much higher for corn and soybeans — but policymakers anticipate a high percentage of acres will convert to PLC once the bill is passed and USDA opens up a new enrollment period that would allow farmers to switch. An amendment added to the Senate bill by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., also would give farmers enrolled in ARC a second chance to switch programs in 2021 if commodity prices remain low.
The major issues in conference are expected to be about differences between the House and the Senate on the changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and about how the bills address restrictions on eligibility for commodity subsidies.
The House bill makes it easier for large operations to get more farm subsidies while the Senate bill makes it harder. The language in the Senate bill would cap the number of farm managers — those people not providing any active labor on the farm — at one. Current law allows three such managers, but senators such as Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, have said too many people abuse those managers’ provisions to collect commodity payments.
“I believe that farm programs should provide temporary, limited assistance to farmers when there’s a natural disaster or an unforeseeable, sudden change in market prices, not unlimited subsidies,” Grassley said. “I’ve advocated for payment limit reforms for more than a decade, and I’m pleased with the amendment’s adoption.”
The Senate did not, however, include a means test amendment for crop insurance subsidies that Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., proposed. Stabenow said that Durbin agreed not to insist on his amendment because the bill contained “other things he cared about.”
The House passed its bill by a vote of 213-211, with only Republicans voting for it. House Democrats refused to vote for the bill because it includes additional work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries and imposed stricter eligibility criteria.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, said in a statement, “Passage today of the Senate farm bill reflects a hard-fought victory, and I commend Chairman Roberts for his tireless efforts. I look forward to working together to send a strong, new farm bill to the president’s desk.”
House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., strongly opposed the House SNAP provisions and has said he intends to side with the Senate on most if not all issues in the conference.
The Senate bill also includes measures to address integrity in SNAP, but the changes are much less dramatic. The Senate rejected by a vote of 68 to 30, an amendment that combined the proposals of Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that would have required SNAP beneficiaries to show photo identification to buy food and would have imposed stiffer work requirements on SNAP participants classified as able-bodied adults without dependents.
Stabenow said on the Senate floor and told reporters that the grocery industry was strongly opposed to the Kennedy-Cruz amendment because it would have held retailers responsible if the photo IDs were inaccurate.
Roberts said he blamed himself for not talking enough about the SNAP provisions in the Senate bill and that he believed the numbers of senators supporting the bill could have been more than 90 if he had briefed the Republican senators about the SNAP provisions as much as Stabenow briefed her Democratic colleagues. Roberts also pointed to SNAP pilot projects already underway in 10 states, with plans to expand those to eight more states.
The final votes came quickly after two days of what appeared to be inaction. Stabenow said that all day Wednesday and Thursday were consumed with trying to resolve the objections of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., about an amendment that Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., had written to allow the Agriculture Department to spend trade promotion money in Cuba.
Rubio did not want American producers who may travel to Cuba under the Market Access Program to spend money in hotels and resorts owned by the Cuban military, and the final manager’s package included a Rubio amendment that will restrict that spending to non-military establishments.
Heitkamp said she agreed to the Rubio amendment to move the farm bill along. Heitkamp added she would argue in farm bill conference talks that the original amendment would still be a far better outcome for exporters who want to be involved in Cuba. “But at this point we didn’t want to hold up the farm bill,” she said.
Stabenow also told reporters afterward that dealing with the Cuba issue was one of the most complicated issues because there were staffs for several senators involved.
NO SUGAR AMMENDMENT
One of the biggest surprises was that there was no sugar amendment offered, even though Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., had prepared one.
Stabenow said that “those who cared about it” decided not to offer it, but a sweetener industry source said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had closely controlled the bill process and did not want the sugar amendment included.
The vote on final passage took place after a roll call vote on an amendment offered by Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Cory Booker, D-N.J., to place curbs on the checkoff research and promotion programs. The vote on that amendment was 38 to 57, and it failed.
Conservation Reserve Program
Just before final passage, the Senate also approved an amendment offered by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., to allow partial haying and grazing on Conservation Reserve Program land. Farmers would be able to hay or graze up to one-third of their land in certain circumstances for a 25% decline in rental payments.
In other areas of CRP, the Senate bill increases the acreage by 1 million acres for a total of 25 million but lowers the average rental rate to 88% of the county rental average. Negotiations will have to find a sweet spot with the House, which increases CRP acreage to 29 million acres but also lowers the rental rate for new enrollment to 80% of the average rental rate.
The Senate bill also keeps the Conservation Stewardship Program intact, while the House bill eliminates new enrollment but adds more funding to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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