Senate Passes Farm Bill, House Prepares for Showdown

Food stamps remain the major obstacle standing between Congress and the farm bill's passage.

(J. Scott Applewhite/ File, AP)

Stacks of paperwork awaiting members of the House Agriculture Committee as it considers proposals to the 2013 Farm Bill.

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The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013 overcame its first major hurdle Monday night when it passed on the Senate floor, 66 to 27.

[READ: Sugar, Monsanto and Tobacco All in Crosshairs of Senate Farm Bill]

The five-year farm bill, which would eliminate direct payments to farmers, tie new conservation requirements to a farmer's crop insurance, and continue to pay for food assistance programs such as food stamps, will cost taxpayers more than $955 billion over the next decade.

"The Senate voted to support 16 million American jobs, to save taxpayers billions and to implement the most significant reforms to agriculture programs in decades," Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said after the vote.

"By eliminating duplication and streamlining programs, we were able to save $24 billion while strengthening initiatives that help farmers and small businesses reach new markets. This bill proves that by working across party lines, we can save taxpayer money and create smart policies."

But its future in the House is much less straightforward.

[ALSO: The Farm Bill Fight Over Food Stamps]

As a drought paralyzed many farms across the country in 2012, the Republican caucus at large was split on whether to support the bill – and election-year politicking didn't help matters.

"We had a presidential election on our hands and that makes garnering a bipartisan spirit on the farm bill harder," says Dale Moore, the executive director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau. "We had leadership concerned over how farm bill policies would help or hurt them among farmers at the polls."

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, suggested Monday during a meeting with reporters that he was ready for Republicans to debate the bill on the floor. And he promised to move forward before the bill expires in September.

"If you have ideas on how to make the bill better, bring them forward. Let's have the debate, and let's vote on them," Boehner said.

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The most stark contrast between the Senate and the House versions of the bill, and perhaps the most difficult piece both chambers will have to compromise on, is how to handle the bill's food assistance programs, which account for 80 percent of the costs in the farm bill.

The Senate bill would cut $4 billion in food stamps over the next decade by restricting access to lottery winners and college students, while the House version would cut the program by more than $20 billion over the next 10 years.

The food programs to help the poor became a staple of farm bill policy decades ago as a way for members of Congress who represented rural districts to convince their colleagues from urban areas to support farm subsidies.

But the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps, has rapidly expanded by 70 percent in the last five years as the country braced itself for a recession. The most recent estimates show nearly 48 million Americans depend on the program.

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