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Senate clears way for farm bill vote

DANIEL LOOKER 02/03/2014 @ 6:57pm Business Editor

By a vote of 72 to 22, the Senate today advanced the farm bill to a final vote on Tuesday afternoon. Monday's vote to invoke cloture required 60 votes and prevents a filibuster. It leaves 20 minutes for final debate before tomorrow's vote.

"Passing this legislation will support our nation’s farmers and ranchers, and over 16 million jobs," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said at the beginning of Monday's debate on the cloture vote.

And the Senate Agriculture Committee's Chairwoman, Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) pointed out that it has been 490 days since the 2008 farm bill expired. USDA programs have been running on a one-year extension of the 2008 farm bill that was passed at the start of 2013, then extended again in the House late last year but not in the Senate as negotiations on a new law continued.

"It's time to get it done. It’s time to pass this tomorrow and get it to the president for his signature," Stabenow said.

Stabenow described the bill as one with reforms and "not your father's farm bill." Its commodity title is smaller, she said, it consolidates more than 100 programs, and it shifts programs to farmers when there's a financial need or natural disasters such as drought.

"It’s been one of my top goals, as we wrote this bill, to end direct payments, once and for all," she said.

But advancing the bill had opposition from fiscal conservatives, including Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) who expressed disappointment that a Senate amendment he cosponsored that would have shaved crop insurance subsidies by 15 percentage points for high-income farmers was not in the final bill. "We're continuing to pay hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars" to some of the nation's wealthiest farmers, he said.

Senator Chuck Grassley also voted against ending cloture, because the final bill did not include payment-limit reforms that were in both the House and Senate bills passed last year.

"This provision should not have been touched because it was the same in both houses," Grassley said.

"Subsidizing large farmers to get larger, is in my estimation wrong," said Grassley, who argued that it puts beginning farmers at a disadvantage and has helped drive up land prices.

Grassley thanked Stabenow for fighting for his provision in the law until that last couple of days before conference committee negotiations ended.

Not only did Grassley's provisions cap commodity program payments at $250,000 for a farming couple, it allowed only one other outside nonfarming investor in a farm to claim to be "actively engaged" in farming and collect another payment up to $125,000.

That loophole has allowed very large farms, especially in Southern states, to receive millions of dollars for nonfarmers.

Stabenow said that the new farm bill will prevent anyone with more than $900,000 in adjusted gross income (from farming or any source) from receiving payments. And, she said, the bill is "giving the [Agriculture] Secretary for the first time the authority to impose limits on the number of managers who can qualify for payments."

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