The Senate passed a $500 billion, bipartisan farm bill Thursday with a 64-35 vote that should at least put to rest the nasty criticisms that Congress is on hiatus in anticipation of the 2012 election.
The passage came swiftly after the Senate debated more than amendments in just three days.
The final bill cuts $23.6 billion over the next 10 years by what its proponents call streamlining of duplicate programs, cutting $4.5 billion to nutrition programs, and ending "direct payment" farm subsidies, replacing them instead with crop insurance programs.
The legislation still must be approved by the House of Representatives, where it could face a tougher fight. [See the Latest Political Cartoons From U.S. News & World Report.]
"We examined every agriculture program to see what was working and what wasn't," said Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "This farm bill ends unnecessary direct payment subsidies, consolidates programs, and cracks down on fraud and abuse. With these reforms we saved billions that allowed us to strengthen initiatives that are effectively helping farmers and businesses."
The bill streamlines 23 conservation programs into 13, expands bio-based manufacturing programs and bio-energy programs, and cuts subsidies to large landowners while providing more help to organic vegetable and fruit farmers.
Not everyone was in love with the farm bill, however.
A number of Republicans, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, campaigned for deeper cuts.
"Unfortunately, it seems that Congress's idea of farm bill reform is to eliminate one subsidy program only to invent a new one to take its place," McCain said in a floor speech earlier in the week.
And some Democrats were floored by the $4.5 billion in cuts to food stamps or SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs.
SNAP cuts came from closing what bill proponents called loopholes and tightening the requirements to qualify for the program.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, on average, the cuts will mean families needing assistance will receive $90 less a month for groceries. [See: Latest political cartoons]
Democrat New York Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand offered a failed amendment to stop the cutbacks, arguing the bill fell short of protecting families in a down economy.
"Just as important as the health of our agriculture industry is the health and nutrition of our children and families. I am deeply disappointed by the $4.5 billion in cuts to food assistance in this bill," she said. "I will keep fighting to bring healthy, nutritious food within reach of America's children so they may reach their God-given potential."
The House is expected to take up the bill after July 4 recess. Republican lawmakers there are likely to support even deeper cuts to food-assistance programs and to crop subsidies
"Although there will be differences between the Senate approach and our own," said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Frank Lucas, "I hope my colleagues are encouraged by this success when we meet on the 11th to consider our own legislation. The House Agriculture Committee will consider a balanced proposal that saves taxpayers billions of dollars, recognizes the diversity of American agriculture, respects the risks producers face, and preserves the tools necessary for food production."
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