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Senators quickly wrapped up farm bill debate Thursday and Friday after months of wondering if a package would ever make it to the floor. Friday senators overwhelmingly approved its farm bill version by a vote of 79-14, garnering the most votes on a farm bill since 1973. On the surface there are few changes from the 2002 Farm Bill, leaving chances to reform slim in House-Senate conference committee. In addition, the bill escaped two attempts to reign in spending by limiting payments. T
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin praised the bipartisan bill -- evident by the fact that it passed Committee after only one day of deliberation with no negative votes voiced against it. "After months of negotiations, we were able to work within a very strict budget allocation to complete our work and pass a farm bill that is good for agriculture, good for rural areas and good for the health of Americans" said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin. "This is a forward-looking farm bill with greatly strengthened initiatives to support renewable energy, conservation, nutrition, rural development and to promote better diets and health for all Americans. It maintains a strong safety net for farm producers, and strengthens programs that will help agricultural producers of all kinds across our nation."
He outlined key provisions in the bill including the Average Crop Revenue Program giving farmers an option to participate in a state-level revenue protection system. He also worked to expand the Conservation Stewardship Program (previously Conservation Security Program) from 15 million acres to a total of 80 million acres in 5 years. The Senate version also increases assistance to growers of fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops who were left out of the last farm bill.
Uphill battle for reform
The cry was loud for reform this year, but Congress turned their ear to the reformists and listened to the many ag groups who voiced opposition to making significant changes in 2007.
A coalition of reform groups including Environmental Working Group, Oxfam American, Taxpayers for Common Sense and Environmental Defense criticized the democrats "shenanigans" in forcing approval of two payment limitation amendments by 60 votes instead of a majority, of which both achieved a majority, but not the 60 votes.
The Senate defeated the Dorgan-Grassley amendment seeking a cap of $250,000 on payments to any one individual by a vote of 56-43. The Senate also struck down an amendment by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) to limit payment eligibility to full-time farmers with an adjusted gross income of less than $750,000. Payments would have been banned for farmers above $750,000 and for part-time farmers (less than two-thirds of their income from farming) who have an adjusted gross income above $250,000. Under a bipartisan agreement, several votes Thursday required 60 votes (a supermajority) for passage. Klobuchar's amendment failed 48 to 47.
White House veto remains
Harkin expressed hope that conference negotiations can be completed in January. However, both chambers have significant differences in how to fund the bill. The White House said both versions would garner a presidential veto, especially with the increased taxes to pay for the bill.
Acting Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner said the Senate-passed farm bill does not represent fiscal stewardship and lacks farm program reform. "This legislation is fundamentally flawed. Unless the House and Senate can come together and craft a measure that contains real reform, we are no closer to a good farm bill than we were before today's passage.
"Farmers need a stable safety net that helps in years they need it most," said Conner. "And farmers deserve a farm bill that is free of budget smoke and mirrors and tax increases. The measure passed today has $22 billion in unfunded commitments and budget gimmicks, and includes $15 billion in new taxes- the first time a farm bill has relied on tax increases since 1933."
Conner said it is "imperative that substantial changes are made to this legislation."