Updated at 3:30 p.m.
The Senate gave final approval to the farm bill in a 68-32 vote Tuesday afternoon. The measure now heads to President Barack Obama for his signature.
After three years of negotiations, starts and stops, Congress is expected to pass a comprehensive five-year farm bill Tuesday.
The Senate voted 72 to 22 Monday to push the bill over a procedural hurdle and the legislation cleared the House last Wednesday. The latest version of the $1 trillion farm bill saves $16.6 billion over the next decade by doing away with so-called direct payments, which cost taxpayers an estimated $5 billion a year and shaving roughly $8.5 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.
The savings to SNAP come from changing the “Heat and Eat” program, which is estimated to affect roughly 850,000 families. While food rights groups called the cuts too extreme, the farm bill allocates an extra $200 million to food banks in an effort to soften the blow. The crop insurance program was also expanded in the new bill to protect farmers and lawmakers green lighted a new research program to test industrial hemp production.
But before lawmakers pat themselves on the back, pundits argue that the farm bill is hardly a mark of congressional goodwill, nor does it signal anything more than a temporary break in the gridlock. Pundits say the reality is Congress couldn’t punt the bill much longer.
The country was running up against a “dairy cliff,” which would have forced Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to reactivate dairy laws from the 1940s. Experts predict that program would have sent milk prices skyrocketing. And experts warn that many lawmakers in the House of Representatives feared returning to their rural districts empty handed ahead of the midterm elections.
“What has been so stunning is how long it has taken,” says Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution. “It shows the reality of how much polarization has seeped into the legislative process.”
In past farm bill showdowns, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle overcame disagreements over the dairy and sugar programs, crop insurance and food stamps. Lawmakers from rural districts negotiated commodity titles that satisfied rural voters back home and congressmen from urban districts fought to secure funding for food stamps.
Despite the some groups’ small frustrations with the current bill, hundreds of farm groups have signaled they are pleased with the overall outcome.
It has easily been a three-year odyssey,” says Dale Moore, a spokesman for the the American Farm Bureau Federation. “We know that within the agricultural family, there are always going to be some battles, but this bill is a compromise.”
President Barack Obama has also signaled he will sign the farm bill.
Updated on Feb. 4, 2014:
This story has been updated to include the Senate’s passage of the farm bill.